The Common Good

Will We Be Able to Afford Medicare?

We'll be hearing a lot about Medicare between now and November. President Barack Obama wants to tweak it. Mitt Romney wants to reinvent it. Everyone who wants to get elected, however, agrees on one thing: nothing will change for the current crop of seniors and soon-to-be seniors.

Whew. Six months and Mr. Neff will be home free! Less than a year and a half and we'll both have free health care! And then we can afford to retire, right?

Wrong.

Last week a friend and I—let's call her Dorothy—compared health-care costs. We have a lot in common. Both of us are married. In both couples, one spouse's medical expenses are low while the other spouse's are high. We both live in Wheaton, Ill., and have access to the same hospitals and doctors and pharmacies. We both are compulsive record keepers. Here's the difference: Dorothy and her husband—let's call him Dale—are retired and on Medicare. My husband and I have a Blue Cross Blue Shield PPO through his employer.

Last year Dorothy and Dale paid $8,874.60 for health insurance. That included Medicare plans A, B, and D ($2,988), plus a Medigap policy, plan F, to handle what Medicare doesn't cover ($5,886.60). In addition, they paid $1,588 for dental care, vision care, and prescription co-pays. Add those expenses to their insurance costs, and Dorothy and Dale paid $10,462.60 for health care in 2011.

For comparison, last year my husband and I paid $3,185 for health insurance. In addition, we paid $4,447.51 for co-pays, deductibles, vision care, and the percentage that Blue Cross doesn't cover. Add these expenses to our insurance costs, and my husband and I paid $7,632.51 for health care in 2011.

That is, my retired friends on Medicare paid $871.88 a month on health care compared to our $636.04 - a difference of $235.84 a month. In fact, health care costs eat up about 30 percent of their Social Security income. Something to look forward to!

Still, I'm thankful for Medicare. Once my husband retires and the company contribution stops—another $12,740 beyond our own payments—there's no way we could pay for private insurance plus out-of-pocket expenses. Half a loaf is better than none. But do keep us geezers in mind when you go to the polls in November. Most retired folks have less income than they did when they were working. They also often have much higher medical expenses, even if their health status has not changed.

Yes, I know that health-care costs have spiraled out of control. Yes, I understand that the government will not be able to afford Medicare much longer, especially since the ratio of workers to retired people has dramatically shifted. Clearly something has to be done—but what?

A government website touts the Affordable Care Act's provisions to fight waste, fraud, and abuse in Medicare, and to slow cost growth - worthy goals all, but inadequate to the task of reforming senior health care. Mr. Romney offers a private-enterprise-based solution that could actually make the situation worse. Our current for-profit health-care system has made U.S. health care more expensive than health care in all other developed nations, twice as expensive as most. Allowing it to take over an even greater percentage of our health care system seems foolhardy at best.

The truth is that we won't solve Medicare until we solve health care for everybody.

Meanwhile, why do politicians of every persuasion promise not to touch Medicare for Boomers and seniors, even as they suggest overhauling the program? Because we don't know what we'd do without it, and they don't know what they'd do without our votes.

But if our lawmakers don't start ignoring their pet lobbyists and corporate sponsors pretty darn soon and come up with a really workable health-care plan for young and old alike, we're going to find out exactly what we'll do without Medicare: If we or our children can afford to pay several thousand dollars a month for health care, we'll live as long as our European friends. If not, well, too bad.

LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and atThe Neff Review.

Cost of Medicare photo, aceshot1 / Shutterstock.com

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