The Other Name For Bernie Sanders’ Single-Payer Plan: Benefits For Billionaires

The Other Name For Bernie Sanders’ Single-Payer Plan: Benefits For Billionaires

The non-partisan budget office found that at every income level, seniors received more in Medicare benefits than they paid in Medicare taxes.
Christopher Jacobs
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On Wednesday, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders plans to introduce the latest version of his single-payer health-care program. If past practice holds, Sanders will call his plan “Medicare for All.” But if he wants to follow Medicare as his model, then the Sanders plan could easily earn another moniker: Benefits for Billionaires.

An analysis released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in August demonstrates how Medicare currently provides significant financial benefits to seniors at all income levels, including the wealthy. Specifically, the CBO paper analyzed lifetime Medicare taxes paid, and lifetime benefits received, by individuals born in the 1950s who live to age 65.

The non-partisan budget office found that at every income level, seniors received more in Medicare benefits than they paid in Medicare taxes. Men in the highest income quintile—the top 20 percent of income—received a net lifetime benefit from Medicare of nearly $50,000, even after taking into account the Medicare taxes and premiums they paid. Women received an even greater net benefit between taxes paid and benefits received at all income levels, reflecting both longer life expectancy (i.e., more benefits paid out) and shorter working histories (fewer taxes paid in).

The CBO analysis confirms prior work by the Urban Institute—no right-wing think tank—that Medicare pays out more in benefits than it receives in taxes at virtually all income levels. For instance, according to Urban’s most recent study, a high-earning male turning 65 in 2020 will pay in an average of $123,000 in Medicare taxes, but receive an average of $222,000 in benefits.

Melinda Gates Doesn’t Need Government Health Care

Some may quibble with the work by CBO and Urban Institute for containing an important oversight. In analyzing only Medicare benefits and Medicare taxes paid, the two papers omit the portion of Medicare’s financing that comes from general revenues—including the income taxes paid primarily by the wealthy. While it’s difficult to draw a precise link between Medicare’s general revenue funding and any one person’s income tax payments, it’s possible that—particularly for one-percenters—income taxes paid will offset the net cost of their Medicare benefits.

But regardless of those important details, the larger point still holds. Even if her taxes do outweigh the Medicare benefits received, why does Melinda Gates need the estimated $300,000 in health care benefits paid to the average high-income woman born in the 1950s? Does that government spending serve a useful purpose?

Moreover, if Medicare provides a net benefit to the average senior at virtually every income bracket, how does the program as currently constructed represent either 1) social insurance or 2) a sustainable fiscal model? Under an insurance model, some individuals “win” by receiving greater net benefits, while some individuals “lose” by not fully receiving back the money they paid in. But given that multiple analyses have demonstrated that virtually every cohort of seniors currently benefits from Medicare, then the program’s only true “losers” are the future generations of Americans who will fund today’s profligate spending.

We Don’t Have Money to Subsidize the Rich

Yes, Medicare currently does include some means testing for wealthy beneficiaries, in both the Part B (physician) and Part D (prescription drug) portions of the program. But common sense should dictate first that wealthy individuals not only should be able to opt-out of Medicare if they so choose—because, strange as it sounds, the federal government currently forbids individuals from renouncing their Medicare benefits—wealthy seniors should not receive a taxpayer subsidy at all. Whether in Medicare or Sanders’ socialist utopia, the idea that Warren Buffett or Bill Gates warrant taxpayer subsidies defies credulity.

Despite this common-sense logic, liberals continue to support providing taxpayer-funded benefits for billionaires. In 2011, then-Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) said “if [then-Speaker John] Boehner wants to have the wealthy contribute more to deficit reduction, he should look to the tax code.” Perhaps Waxman views keeping wealthy seniors in Medicare as a form of punishment for the rich. After all, nearly nine in ten seniors have some form of supplemental insurance, and a form of “insurance” one must insure against may not be considered an unalloyed pleasure.

Regardless, Medicare faces its own financial reckoning, and sooner rather than later. In 2009—the last trustees’ report before Obamacare introduced fiscal gimmicks and double-counting into Medicare—the program’s actuaries concluded Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would become functionally insolvent this year. Given that bleak outlook, neither Medicare nor the American people can afford Sanders’ ill-conceived scheme to provide taxpayer-funded health benefits to wealthy 1-percenters.

Jacobs is founder and CEO of Juniper Research Group, a policy consulting firm based in Washington. He's on Twitter @chrisjacobshc.

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