Montana Viewpoint: The long goodbye to Medicare


Funding Medicare, Jim Elliott says, is purely a matter of priorities.

The proposed Republican budget for 2019 is being formulated and there are some serious cuts that should disturb many Americans.

Slowly but surely, those government programs that help people in very real ways —Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — are being decimated by Republicans running the country.


Jim Elliott

Make no mistake about my feelings. I know that they have every right to do this; it is a part of their philosophy, it has been their stated objective for years, and they are in charge. They have every right to do this, but it is bad policy for American people.

Of course, it is not presented as a policy issue, it is presented as an economic issue: “We cannot afford it.” As cut and dried as that argument should seem, it is bogus. Here’s a story to help illustrate that.

In 2003, the Education Committee of the Montana Senate was having a hearing on a bill to increase education funding by $50 million. Speaking in opposition to the bill was Budget Director Chuck Swysgood, who said: “We’d like to give another $50 million to education, but we just don’t have the money.”

“But you had it yesterday and you gave it away!” said one of the committee members. It was true. They did not have the money because just the day before they had blown $50 million on a huge income tax cut that had disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Montanans. They had made a policy decision — tax cuts over education, cut and dried.

In the Republicans’ proposed 2019 budget, for example, Americans have known for years that Medicare, one of the most important programs for individual Americans, has been in trouble. But, even knowing that, Congress has done nothing.

Instead, last year the Republican Congress passed a huge tax cut primarily benefiting the extremely wealthy and corporations that is slated to increase the deficit by $1 trillion over the next 10 years. This was followed by a bank-busting budget increase supported largely by Democrats. Of course, there is no money, so there are proposed cuts to Medicare.

If Medicare were eliminated in one fell swoop, there would be outrage and there would be political retribution by an army of the elderly. It is different if it is done a little at a time; just as it diminishes the program slowly it keeps the public anger at a manageable level. And there is the best of rationales to use to sell the public on the necessity: “We have no money.”

But here’s an interesting tidbit from the budget proposal; there may not be money for keeping people healthy, but there is money for defense. While Medicare is being cut by $537 billion over 10 years, defense spending is being increased by $736 billion. It is a choice.

It is as if the budget crisis that precipitated the budget cuts has nothing to do with the earlier tax cut. Except it has everything to do with it. A budget is simple; money in, money out. When the money in decreases, the money out needs to decrease, too. What seems not to be understood, or at least understood imperfectly, is that income deliberately forgone, like a tax cut, is spending, too. So, a choice has been made: spend money on tax cuts or spend money on health care.

This is purely a matter of political philosophy — Democrats support public health insurance for Americans, Republicans support private health care insurance. Naturally, the Republicans are proposing to replace Medicare with coverage by the private sector.

This is indicative of a very poor memory on the part of the budget planners. Those of us with better memories recall when many, many elderly people died in poverty of treatable illnesses because they couldn’t afford insurance, treatment or drugs. It was because of the inability of private sector insurers to provide affordable health care coverage that Medicare came into being. It has worked well for people.

In a fit of political wisdom, Republicans have decided to not go too far with their proposal before the November election.

I am not angry with Republicans for doing what they believe in. I am angry with them (or any politician) who sells the public a bill of goods simply because they do not have the guts to level with them.

Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature and four years as chairman of the Montana Democratic Party. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. Montana Viewpoint appears in weekly newspapers across Montana and online at Last Best News and Missoula Current.

Comments are closed.