Joe Lieberman Says He Didn’t Change On Medicare Buy-In, Things Did

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In a gaggle just now in the Senate, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., explained the apparent contradiction between his current opposition to expanding Medicare to allow those between 55- and 64-years-old to pay a fee to join the program and his past support for similar proposals.

“I didn’t change my mind on the Medicare buy-in,” Lieberman said. “Things changed a lot.”

He said his support for the proposal in 2000, as Vice Presidential candidate, had something to do with party loyalty, noting that the proposal was a part of the “party platform.” Then time passed. “A lot of things have changed in nine years,” he continued. “In 2000 the federal government was in surplus.” He also noted that the Medicare program looked much more solvent then, and that the current health care reform legislation lessens the need for a buy-in program, since many of the uninsured in this age bracket will be offered subsidies to buy insurance.

As to the Lieberman’s more recent endorsement of the idea of a buy-in–just a few months ago with a Connecticut newspaper–he said vaguely that he had been making a larger point about his opposition to the public option and his support for health reform as a whole.

Now that the buy-in provision is apparently dead, Lieberman said he was ready to vote for the bill. “What is beginning to emerge, though I know some people are not happy about it, is really a historic achievement,” he said.

Here is the full transcript of the exchange:

QUESTION: Can you explain why you changed your mind on the Medicare buy-in?

LIEBERMAN: Well, I didn’t — I didn’t change my mind on the Medicare buy-in.

I mean, I know this is a classic, sort of, sport on, although it’s not terrible to change one’s mind if you change — if in fact, you do. I don’t want to spend too much time on this.

In the 2000 campaign, when I was privileged to be Al Gore’s running mate, the party platform was to suggest one way to reform health care was to allow 55- to 65-year-olds to buy into Medicare. That’s — that’s a very stressed age group when you don’t have insurance.

LIEBERMAN: But a lot of things have changed in nine years.

The first is that — that in 2000 the federal government was in surplus and paying off the debt, not having increased the debt enormously.

Secondly, Medicare wasn’t on the verge of imminent bankruptcy, which it is now.

And third there wasn’t a bill on the floor such as the one on the floor now that would extend very generous subsidies to those 55- and 65-year-olds to enable them to buy insurance and reduce the impact of age in the pricing of insurance policies.

So things changed a lot.


LIEBERMAN: Oh, and the Connecticut Post interview — well, I finally got to see that on TV last night, and it looked to me like I was referring back to the things I had supported in the past to make the point that though I was against the public option I was not against health care reform.

And, of course, I did that before the Finance Committee bill came out with this very large and, again I’d say, generous — but I supported it — system of subsidies that bring basically lower middle- income people into the health insurance system, so…

QUESTION: But, Senator, weren’t those subsidies baked into the health care reform architecture (inaudible)?

LIEBERMAN: Not to that extent.

But look, here’s the point. The Medicare buy-in as proposed didn’t make sense. I mean, every — you can all focus on it, but it ended up, it seems to me, when — when advocates of the public option didn’t — saw that they didn’t have the votes for the public option, they kind of tried to get it down another pass. And it made no sense.

It — it — hospitals — incidentally, I’m not the only person in the Democratic Caucus who opposed the Medicare buy-in. You saw that 11 other Democratic senators wrote to Senator Reid telling him they were against it because of the impact they thought it would have on hospitals and doctors in their state. And by cost shifting on 180 million people in America who get their insurance today through — through private companies, their premiums would go up.

So that’s where we are now. This was unnecessary.

The fact is that the more they try to change it to get it through, separate insurance pools separate from Medicare, self- sustaining, the premiums they’d have to pay for. As I said to one of the advocates of it, nobody between 55 and 65 is going to be able to afford this plan. And he said to me, “That’s not the point. We’re just — we’re trying to work out a deal here.”

So I said, “Well, that doesn’t make any sense to me,” because in the long term the danger will be that the federal government will be pressured to take this over, make up deficits in this separate pool.

And, again, it’s not necessary. We’ve got a great health insurance reform bill here. And the danger was that some of my colleagues, I think, were just trying to load it up with too much. And what happens then is that you run the risk of losing everything.

So I think what’s beginning to emerge — though I know some people are not happy about it — is really a historic achievement, health care reform such as we’ve not seen in this country for decades.