Knee-jerk reactions. They're a big part of what makes politics so dysfunctional in this country.
We need to resist making snap judgements about the plan to reform Medicare unveiled today by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Yes, that Paul Ryan.
To progressives, he's evil incarnate. To conservatives, he's the second coming of Ronald Reagan. In truth, he's just Paul Ryan. A person. With ideas to improve Medicare. Which is who Ron Wyden also is. A person. With ideas to improve Medicare.
Basically, by offering seniors a choice: stay in the current government-run Medicare system, or join a private insurance plan with the same defined benefits as the public plan. Read all about it on New York Times, Politico, Washington Post, Oregonian.
This is far different from what Ryan initially proposed, which would have largely privatized Medicare, a.k.a. "ending Medicare as we know it" in liberal-speak, or "saving Medicare for future generations" in conservative-speak.
There's no doubt that big changes have to be made in Medicare. I say this as someone who will be eligible for Medicare in less than two years. I'm looking forward to ditching Blue Cross. Everyone I know who is on Medicare likes it.
My family doctor, though, says she loses money on every Medicare visit, and I believe her. This is one sign, among many, that Medicare needs some major fixing.
In his book, "Comeback America," David Walker, former head of the Government Accountability Office, says that Medicare had a financing gap of about $38 trillion as of January 1, 2009 -- five times greater than Social Security's shortfall. Probably the gap is even greater today.
But I'll admit that when I saw Paul Ryan's name in the first news story I read about the Wyden-Ryan Medicare reform plan, my intuitive reaction was "This must be a bad idea." Then I read some details about it and thought, "Hmmmm. There's some things to like here."
(I was a health planner and policy analyst for about fifteen years, so I know quite a bit about our health care system.)
For sure, though, Democrats and Republicans are going to retreat to their usual corners and come out swinging at each other when debate on the Wyden-Ryan plan begins. Per usual, rationality, facts, and respectful discourse will take a back seat to political posturing.
We can only hope that things will be different in 2013, when the Wyden-Ryan plan may become proposed legislation.
The pair said they would not draft legislation. With Congress at an impasse over more immediate deadline matters, such as the extension of a temporary payroll tax cut, Ryan said he does not expect action on major issues such as Medicare until a new Congress is seated in 2013.
“There’s no point in drafting legislation if you know it’s not going to pass,” Ryan said.
I don't have a problem with offering a defined Medicare benefits package through both the current federal program and private insurance plans. This would be an interesting experiment. Conservatives believe that almost always the private sector can provide services better than government can.
OK. Let's see if this is true with Medicare.
If private insurers can offer seniors the same health services for a lower cost, great. I bet they can't, given their much higher administrative costs. But offering Medicare enrollees a choice between a government and private plan doesn't scare my progressive psyche.
However, what's good for Medicare should be equally good for the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare"). As a condition for going ahead with the Wyden-Ryan plan, Democrats should demand that a public option be added to the Affordable Care Act, as progressives wanted when the legislation was being debated.
Lastly, here's a thought experiment for readers with different political persuasions.
If you're a progressive, imagine that this Medicare reform plan had been unveiled by Senator Ron Wyden and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (a left-leaning Representative). If you're a conservative, imagine that it had been unveiled by Representative Paul Ryan and Jim DeMint (a right-leaning Senator).
Would your opinion of the plan be different, if both of the sponsors had shared your personal political views? Probably. That's human nature. We have a hard-wired tendency to identify with our own "tribe." But this bias can be overcome.
It needs to be, if the United States is to overcome the extreme divisiveness that hinders our country from moving forward on resolving pressing problems. Kudos to Wyden and Ryan for giving it a try.