Republican bill would enroll seniors in same health plans as lawmakers

A group of Senate Republicans has introduced legislation that would end traditional Medicare and sign seniors up for the same private healthcare plans received by members of Congress. 

The "Congressional Health Care for Seniors Act" would allow seniors to choose from the array of plans currently offered to the four million federal employees and their dependents in the Federal Employee Health Benefit program, starting in 2014. It would also gradually increase the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 70 over a 20-year period.

The bill was introduced Thursday by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). South Carolina Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jim DeMint are co-sponsors, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).

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"Our goal is to save Medicare from bankruptcy and ensure seniors have affordable, high-quality health care — a crisis President Obama has only made worse during his time in office," Graham said. "Allowing seniors access to the Federal Employee Health Benefit (FEHB) program, which members of Congress and federal employees use, will give them more choices and lower their out-of-pocket costs."

According to a synopsis from Paul's office, the bill would:

• slash the deficit by $1 trillion over the first 10 years and reduce Medicare's 75-year unfunded obligation by almost $16 trillion;

• offer seniors "richer benefits, higher quality health care, and better access to doctors and providers" while cutting their premiums to $1,900 per year — less than the $3,500 seniors currently pay for Medicare benefits and supplemental insurance, or Medigap;

• charge seniors the same premium regardless of their health status or pre-existing conditions; 

• subsidize three-quarters of the cost of the average plan while offering additional premium assistance and cost-sharing through the Medicaid program for low-income seniors; 

• cap total out-of-pocket costs; and

• create a new high-risk pool for the highest-cost patients within the FEHB program.

Paul acknowledges, however, that adding seniors to the federal program would drive costs up for its current 8.5 million enrollees by about 24 percent.

"Federal employees are the one group of people who may have a legitimate argument with the Congressional Health Care Plan for Seniors," Rand's synopsis says. "Asking them to share their health care with the elderly will cause their premiums to increase."

Indeed, as soon as the bill was unveiled the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association expressed concerns that the bill would destabilize the federal workers' program.

"This is a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone kind of proposal that would both bring down Medicare as we know it and threaten the stability of the FEHBP," said association president Joseph Beaudoin. "As for the senators' notion that America's seniors should be in the same health care system as America's elected officials, they seem to have forgotten that starting in 2014, members of Congress will no longer be covered by the FEHBP but will be in state-based health care exchanges."