“We’re going to debate it. We’re going to debate it straight up. We’re not going to debate it in terms of just being a — political 30-second ads. Paul Ryan laid out their budget. Their budget eviscerates — it eliminates Medicare. They say it doesn’t. It makes it a voucher program. I call that eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.”
— Vice President Biden, Aug. 30, 2011
Vice President Biden’s remarks to campaign donors in Tulsa resurfaces an issue that lay dormant during the long summer debate over raising the debt ceiling — the House Republican plan for Medicare. We have repeatedly chastised both Democrats and Republicans for making misleading statements on this issue.
Biden’s remarks were reported on an ABC News blog, but the quote we’re examining is slightly different. The vice president’s office provided a transcript of this section of Biden’s remarks, and it shows that one crucial phrase — “they say it doesn’t” — was missing from ABC’s account.
But Biden’s essential point is that the GOP plan would “eliminate Medicare in the next 10 years.” Does it?
The current Medicare system, in place since the mid-1960s, is essentially a government-run health care program, with hospital and doctors fees paid by the government, though beneficiaries also pay premiums for some services as well as deductibles and coinsurance. The new system envisioned by House Republicans would transform Medicare into a competitive market for people who are now younger than 55.
When Biden mentions a “voucher program,” he is referring to what Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, calls “premium support.” That’s a set payment adjusted to inflation, which retirees would use to pick from a range of plans offered by insurance companies. Different plans approved by Medicare would compete for business; insurance companies participating in the program would have to accept all retirees.
The Congressional Budget Office evaluated the GOP plan and raised questions about whether the premium payment would be adequate over time. The CBO analysis estimated that by 2030, the government would pay just 32 percent of the health care costs, less than half of what the federal plan currently pays. The other 68 percent of the plan would have to be shouldered by the retiree. (The CBO estimated that if traditional Medicare stayed in place, the government would pay 70 to 75 percent of the costs, but Republicans argue the current Medicare system is unsustainable and major changes are necessary to save it.)
Biden, in the full quote provided by his office, does acknowledge that the Republicans have a counterargument: “They say it doesn’t” eliminate Medicare. But then he adds, “I call it eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.”
This is where Biden gets in trouble. He might have added the caveat used by President Obama — the end of Medicare “as we know it.” But instead he flatly states that Medicare will be eliminated in 10 years, even though the changes will only begin to affect people retiring then; anyone older than 55 would continue on the current system. (There is an alternative view that some of the GOP proposals would begin to affect even seniors in the current system, but we think it is a stretch to make that claim.)
The Pinocchio Test
Biden gets points for acknowledging there is a debate over what the premium support plan would mean for seniors. But even if you think Biden is just expressing an opinion, he crosses a line here by flatly saying the GOP plan “eliminates” Medicare in a decade. Let’s hope the actual campaign debate does not descend to such name-calling.