Obama and G.O.P. Inching a Little Closer on Medicare
WASHINGTON — As they explore possible fiscal deals, President Obama and Congressional Republicans have quietly raised the idea of broad systemic changes to Medicare that could produce significant savings and end the politically polarizing debate over Republican plans to privatize the insurance program for older Americans.
While the two remain far apart on the central issue of new tax revenue, recent statements from both sides show possible common ground on curbing costs of Medicare, suggesting some lingering chance, however small, for a budget bargain.
Mr. Obama assured House and Senate Republicans during recent separate visits that he could support specific cost-saving changes to Medicare and deliver Democratic votes.
Several changes are likely to once again be in his annual budget, which will be released on April 10, after Congress returns from its break. Mr. Obama also plans a dinner with Senate Republicans that night.
In particular, participants say, the president told House Republicans that he was open to combining Medicare’s coverage for hospitals and doctor services. That would create a single deductible that could increase out-of-pocket costs for many future beneficiaries, but also could pay for a cap on their total expenses and reduce the need to buy Medigap supplementary insurance.
Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the No. 2 House Republican, proposed much the same in a speech in February. “We should begin by ending the arbitrary division between Part A, the hospital program, and Part B, the doctor services,” he said. “We can create reasonable and predictable levels of out-of-pocket expenses without forcing seniors to rely on Medigap plans.”
While Mr. Cantor’s proposal got little attention at the time, its echo by Mr. Obama hints at a new route toward compromise — in contrast with the budget that House Republicans passed this month that has no chance of Senate approval.
At a time when retiring baby boomers and mounting medical prices have made federal health care spending the biggest single driver of the nation’s rising debt, the House budget from Representative Paul D. Ryan Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, would transform Medicare into a voucherlike system known as premium support, which Mr. Obama and Democrats adamantly oppose. But Mr. Cantor, like Mr. Obama, is suggesting cost-saving changes within the existing Medicare program.
To Senator Mark R. Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who has long led a bipartisan group of senators seeking a fiscal deal, such a proposal is the sort of newer idea needed for the parties to stop the “stale arguments” that after three years have turned their budget battling into “World War I trench warfare.”
“You’ve got a whole lot of folks on the Republican side saying, ‘Well, we don’t really like what Ryan has done — premium support — but we want systemic reform,’ ” Mr. Warner said at a round table hosted by Bloomberg News.
Mr. Obama’s openness to systemic Medicare changes came as news to many Republicans, even though he first proposed detailed ideas in 2011. That would help explain Republicans’ frequent, inaccurate charge that Mr. Obama opposes any changes in entitlement spending and that he only wants to raise taxes. But it also reflected how little Mr. Obama has talked about his Medicare proposals.
Still, the same hurdle to compromise stands: The president and his party will not support even his Medicare proposals unless Republicans agree to raise taxes on the wealthy and some corporations. Without that trade-off, common ground on Medicare will remain unplowed.
“The president has said this to the Republicans: ‘You want to do entitlement reform? I do, too. I can produce entitlement reform and bring Democrats to the table, because I am a Democratic president. And so I’m ready to sit down with you and work out an approach,’ ” Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic leader, said at a recent forum hosted by The Wall Street Journal.
Many Republicans remain distrustful of Mr. Obama. Yet when they speak of altering Medicare, not replacing it, it is clear that they share some concerns about the existing program.
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