How many will die if Barack Obama raises the Medicare eligibility age?

UPDATE: The progressive coalition that’s working the Senate has a new whipcount page here: It lists senators in three categories — the good, the wobbly, and the not-helping. A link from each senator’s name gives office contact information and a report-back form. You can also see what others like you have encountered on a per-senator basis. Good page — please use it. Thanks.

It’s certain that President Obama is entertaining the idea of raising the Medicare eligibility age as a gift to Republicans in exchange for their concession on raising taxes:

In his interview with [ABC’s Barbara] Walters, the president hinted at new flexibility on entitlement spending cuts, but only once Republicans concede on top tax rates. … “If the Republicans can move on that [taxes] then we are prepared to do some tough things on the spending side,” Obama said. … Raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 is “something that’s been floated,” Obama said, not dismissing the idea outright.

Just how far rich-people taxes will be raised is anyone’s guess. Obama gets the full 39.6% Clinton top tax rate by doing nothing. Ezra Klein’s guess is that he’ll settle for something like 37% (ish) in order to tempt Boehner into a “bargain.” We’ll see.

My own guess is that Obama will accept the lowest tax increase he can sell to Democrats as a “win” — after all, Obama has hungry corporate mouths to feed, just like the Republicans do. (When you work for the same boss, you tend to have the same goals, right?)

The Dem-side trade for Obama’s request to “Please put the Knife in The Norquist” — by which I mean the infamous “Norquist Pledge” — has to be something equally ugly. Something like Obama’s sell-out of social insurance, which he keeps angling for. The most-mentioned offers include an increase in the Medicare eligibility age (from 65 to 67) and a change in the Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) to make it even less friendly to seniors than it already is. Last shot could be Medicaid. Again, we’ll see.

How many will die if Medicare coverage is reduced?

In the meantime, it’s useful to take changes to Medicare out of the cold-blooded “let’s look at the numbers” world of inhuman DC happy hour discussion, and put the blood back in — by which I mean the “flesh and blood.” After all, human lives are at stake, and outside the Beltway, human lives are a big care-about.

So, just how many seniors will Obama and his compliant Congress people kill if they vote to raise the Medicare retirement age? Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism has started to put a number to the death count (my emphasis and paragraphing):

death_grim_reaper_324px-Cholera[W]e can and should start to understand what the human death toll might be if we increase the retirement age to 67. If the age goes up, there will be 5 million 65 and 66 year olds who can’t get Medicare for at least a year (7 million for at least a month), and will have to rely on some other system for health care payments. Kaiser has a study out on what would happen to Medicare if the eligibility age goes to 67, but with the assumption that Obamacare kicks in and covers all 66 and 67 year olds with a mixture of employer/retiree insurance, Medicaid, or insurance through exchanges. We can assume, however, that some of these seniors will be uninsured. The Congressional Budget Office says that this number, by 2020, will be 5% (see page 6).

After going through those assumptions and their implications, he gets down to the numbers:

How many of the 5 million affected elderly would go uninsured due to a lack of Medicare availability? And how many of those would die as a result of lacking insurance? … At a 4% uninsurance rate, that’s 200,000 uninsured 65 and 66 year olds. The death rate for people in that age bracket is 1.576% annually, which means that 3152 of them would die as a matter of course. If the death rate is 40% higher for the uninsured in this bracket, which would be consistent with the Harvard Medical School study on working age populations, then this means that 1261 seniors will die because they don’t have access to Medicare.

If you make other, less generous assumptions than the ones that get to the number above (see the article for what those are), you end up with over 2500 dead seniors as a result of this policy. [Updated to correct these numbers.]

And of course, this reminder:

Remember, this isn’t a story of heartbreak and sadness. It’s a story of murder by policy. Medicare isn’t a welfare system where people are getting charity from the state, it’s a social insurance system that these people have already paid for.

Sounds like a bottom line to me. Remember, under any set of assumptions, that number will not be zero.

Killing or collateral damage?

Grim Reaper

Grim Reaper via Shutterstock.

So, somewhere between 1000 and 2500 seniors dead because of the Grand Bargain that Barack Obama seems determined to engage in. A reminder, doing nothing gets him two huge wins and no dead citizens.

Stoller calls this “murder by policy.” I’m a Pentagon type myself, so I’ll just call it “collateral damage” — or a down payment on Barack Obama’s legacy and the demise of the Democratic Party.

Complicit Congress types, take note. This decision — which you all are about to make in public — is very much either-or, don’t you think? Vote carefully.

[Updated to correct my numerical confusion.]


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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