Burlington County Times

NJ Democrats Say Medicare And Medicaid Threatened By Trump And GOP Congress

Burlington County Times — July 30, 2018

By David Levinsky

TRENTON — Medicare and Medicaid turned 53 on Monday, and Democratic lawmakers and health care advocates used the anniversary to urge American voters to mobilize this fall to ensure the two programs survive to see 100.

Speaking during a Statehouse news conference, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez and Reps. Frank Pallone and Bonnie Watson Coleman claimed both programs face serious threats from President Donald Trump's administration and the Republican-controlled Congress.

"We know that it works. We know it makes life better. We know it makes life longer and it gives people the opportunity to be healthier," said Watson Coleman, D-12th of Ewing. "But instead of celebrating this 53-year anniversary, we're trying to hold on, we're trying to push back and galvanize people across this country who will stand up and speak out against these Republican policies."

The trio cited Medicare changes proposed in past Republican budgets and statements from House Speaker Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders about the need for entitlement reform following the party's successful effort last year to overhaul the federal tax code to reduce individual and corporate rates, as well as the failed Republican health care bill and its changes to Medicaid, the state and federally funded health care program for low-income and disabled adults and children.

The Republican plan advanced by the House Budget Committee last month continues past spending plan proposals to move Medicare towards a voucher-like system where retirees would have the option to receive coverage from private health plans that would compete with Medicare's traditional open-ended government-run plans.

The budget also proposes caps on Medicaid similar to the previous proposals to transform it into a block grant program.

Menendez said the proposed changes would "end Medicaid as we know it" and jeopardize access to health care for millions who rely on the two programs.

"It's really a fancy way of saying they want to take millions away from disabled Americans, nursing home patients and working people and have them lose their health insurance and not get the care they need," the senator said.

Republicans have said reforms are needed to ensure that the programs remain solvent for future generations and don't overwhelm the federal budget.

A June report from the Trump administration warned that the Medicare trust fund was in danger of being depleted as early as 2026, three years earlier than previously predictions.

Enacting changes to either of the two entitlement programs face an uphill climb. For starters, the House budget is merely a blueprint of spending priorities and does not impact actual government spending. And while its approval could help Republicans avoid procedural hurdles, including a Democrat filibuster in the Senate, Trump has repeatedly said he would not support changes to Medicare.

Menendez and the other Democrats at the press conference said the president also promised he would preserve federal protections for insurance consumers with pre-existing conditions, but that he targeted those with the GOP health care bill and, more recently, his administration has attacked them in a federal court case.

Menendez and the other lawmakers said the best way to protect the programs is for the Democrats to take back control of both the House and Senate during this year's midterm elections. Menendez's seat is up for grabs along with all members of the House.

"If there's any principle that unites everyone in the Democratic Party it's that no American should go without access to health care," Menendez said. "That's why President Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Congress stood up to wild Republican warnings of socialized medicine and passed Medicare and Medicaid and left behind a dark time when seniors, the disabled and the poor languished without care."

Among the advocates who joined the lawmakers in Trenton on Monday was Ady Barkan, a California resident with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, who is traveling the country to advocate for the protection of Medicaid and the expansion of Medicare. Barkan rose to national prominence after confronting Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake on an airplane last year about the GOP tax cuts, which he believes jeopardize both programs.

"These are not abstract policy issues," Barkan said. "This is about the everyday life of people who depend on Medicare and Medicaid for our survival."

"Will I have a home health aide who will help me use a toilet and get out of bed and into this (wheelchair)? Will I have a nurse to give me my medicine?" he asked. "Will I be able to afford a ventilator to keep me alive a few more years to watch my son learn to read? The answer to those questions depends on what our elected officials do."

Barkan spoke in favor of moving to a single-payer or so-called "Medicare for all" system where all Americans would be covered under a government-run health care system with no copays or deductibles. The idea has been championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and has become a goal for many progressive activists but has zero chance of enactment with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress.

Pallone, D-6th of Long Branch, who helped author the Affordable Care Act, said he has no problem with moving to a single-payer system but that he still sees it as a long shot, even if the House and Senate flip.

"When we pick up seats and have a majority, remember a lot of the members running are running in Republican districts, so they are probably going to be more moderate," he said. "So I'm not sure it's possible to achieve."

He said creating a government-run plan or "public option" for sale on the federal insurance exchanges might be possible and could compete against private plans. He said he is focused to pass legislation to stabilize the Affordable Care Act and undo some of the actions of the Trump administration.

Maura Collinsgru, health care program director for the progressive group, New Jersey Citizen Action, said health care is a right that should be accessible for all Americans.

"We in the coalition and Citizen Action wholly support universal coverage. There's many paths to get there," she said.

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