Democrats warn that budget cuts threaten Medicare enrollment

Democrats are warning that House Republican budget cuts could disrupt new enrollments into Medicare.

The GOP's budget slashing could "really bop the Baby Boomers" who are just becoming eligible for federal healthcare coverage, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said during a congressional budget hearing this week with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

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While the budget negotiations don't directly affect the entitlement program, the Social Security Administration has warned that steep budget cuts could lead to furloughs.

"Why would that matter to Medicare, Madam Secretary?" Waxman asked during Thursday's hearing.

When Sebelius didn't instantly catch on to what Waxman was getting at, the Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat answered his own question.

"Well, the Social Security Administration processes the new enrollments into Medicare. Furloughs at the Social Security Administration would lead to backlogs in processing new enrollments and gaps in coverage for nearly half a million new Medicare beneficiaries," he said.

"That should be of concern, not just for Social Security but for the Medicare program."

Once Sebelius made the connection, she agreed with Waxman.

"This year the first of the Baby Boomers became Medicare-eligible, so we are seeing an expanded Medicare beneficiary class, this year and every year of immediate future," she said. "So enrolling people in a timely and accurate fashion is hugely important."

Democrats warned last month about the potential impact of House Republicans' budget proposal on the Social Security Administration. The Medicare connection however hadn't come up until this past week.

The stop-gap spending bill for the last seven months of the fiscal year would provide $1.7 billion less than the agency needs to keep pace with inflation and rising workloads, Ways and Means Democrats said last month.

Democrats warned of a 20-day shutdown resulting in a backlog of retirement claims; but Republicans say they're only proposing a $125 million cut to the agency's administrative budget, which shouldn't cause anything as drastic as furloughs.

Earlier this year, the agency warned in a letter to its union that "given the potential of reduced Congressional appropriations for the remainder of the year," the agency was taking steps "in the event that a furlough may become necessary."

The author, however, Office of Labor-Management and Employee Relations acting associate commissioner Jay Clary clarified that the agency has not yet called for a furlough.