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September 4, 2012

That Terrifying Medicare Voucher Threat

By

Vice President Joe Biden warned you: If you are 54 years of age or younger, be afraid. Be very afraid. If conservatives and misguided centrists have their way, in your old age, when you are frail and vulnerable, you could end up with a Medicare “voucher.” Recently, Representative Kathy Hochul (D., N.Y.) told an audience of senior citizens exactly what to expect: “You are now going to have a voucher and you can go out and negotiate with insurance companies on your own. . . . I heard that and said: No way.”

Yes, no way. There is no major Medicare reform proposal, including the Ryan proposal, that would issue future senior citizens a voucher (a certificate or coupon or a check for a fixed dollar amount) and then force them to fend for themselves — on their own – in negotiating with health-insurance companies who will, as Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz also insists, “cherry pick” the healthy and drop or deny coverage to the sick.

It’s all scary nonsense. The Ryan proposal, among others, is a defined-contribution system that in, say, 2023 would provide direct payment from a government account to a health plan of a person’s choice, including traditional Medicare; health plans, including employer-based retiree plans, would have to meet government standards, including benefit standards of the traditional Medicare program, plus new and much-needed protections against the costs of catastrophic illness; all such plans would be offered through a Medicare exchange; all such plans would be governed by existing Medicare insurance rules, meaning persons could not be legally denied coverage or dropped merely because they are sick; low-income persons would be specially protected from unforeseen out-of-pocket cost hikes; and all enrollees would benefit from an improved risk adjustment among plans in the competitive market to guarantee continuity of patient care and health-plan stability.

A voucher is, of course, a defined contribution; but not all defined contribution programs are “vouchers.” A voucher is just one form of defined contribution. The Merriam Webster definition of a voucher is a “form or check indicating a credit against future purchases or expenditures.” Many ordinary Americans have had some experience with vouchers when their flights were cancelled or delayed, and airlines issued them compensatory certificates redeemable in cash value for the purchase of food and lodging.

If liberals want to label Ryan’s Medicare proposal a “voucher,” as Representative Hochul insists, then logically they must also apply that term to huge chunks of today’s health-care system: the private plans in Medicare Advantage, which cover 27 percent of today’s beneficiaries; the 1100 plans in the Medicare drug program, which cover 60 percent of today’s beneficiaries; the hundreds of plans in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program(FEHBP), which cover roughly 8 million active and retired federal employees and their families, as well as the defined contributions for stocks, bonds, and equity funds in employer-based pension programs. Worse, “vouchers” will fund Obamacare’s insurance exchanges in 2014.

Meanwhile, liberals in Congress need to break the terrifying news to the vast majority of retirees around the country that they are in some form of “voucher” system already. They just don’t know it.

— Robert Moffit is a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Policy Innovation.

First appeared in National Review Online's Critical Condition.

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