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Nation/World

December 6, 2012

Trade-offs in raising Medicare eligibility age

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans are living longer, and Republicans want to raise the Medicare eligibility age as part of any deal to reduce the government’s huge deficits.

But what sounds like a prudent sacrifice for an aging society that must watch its budget could have some surprising consequences, including higher premiums for people on Medicare.

Unlike tax hikes, which spawn hard partisan divisions, increasing the Medicare age could help ease a budget compromise because President Barack Obama has previously been willing to consider it. A worried AARP, the seniors’ lobby, is already running ads knocking down the idea as a quick fix that would cause long-term problems. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., doesn’t like it either.

But for Republicans seeking more than just tweaks to benefit programs, raising the current eligibility age of 65 has become a top priority, a symbol of their drive to rein in government. If Obama and the GOP can’t agree soon on a budget outline, it may trigger tax increases and spending cuts that would threaten a fragile economic recovery.

Increasing the eligibility age to 67 would reduce Medicare spending by about 5 percent annually, compounding into hundreds of billions of dollars over time. But things aren’t that simple.

“This is a policy change that seems straightforward, but has surprising ripple effects,” said Tricia Neuman, a leading Medicare expert with the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation. “It’s a simple thing to describe, and the justification is that people are living longer, but I don’t think people have thought through the indirect effects.”

Among the cost shifts identified in a Kaiser study:

Higher monthly premiums for seniors on Medicare. Their costs would go up because keeping younger, healthier 65- and 66-year-olds out of Medicare’s insurance pool would raise costs for the rest. The increase would be about 3 percent when the higher eligibility age is fully phased in.

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