By Katlyn Smith
U.S. Rep. Bill Foster wants to give serious consideration to a Medicare buy-in for people in their 50s, but doesn’t endorse a “Medicare for All” plan that has been gaining favor with some Democrats.
His Republican challenger in the Nov. 6 election, Dr. Nick Stella, a Darien cardiologist, has called for gradually raising the eligibility age for Medicare, the health insurance program for seniors 65 and older.
The 11th Congressional District candidates offer starkly different views on the future of Medicare as government projections released in June show the benefit program faces insolvency in 2026.
“Medicare needs to be salvaged,” said Stella, who in March won his second attempt at the GOP nomination to try to unseat Foster. “It is very, very unpopular with politicians to talk about that, to talk about the fact that if we don’t do anything, we are going to run out of money.”
Stella wants to increase the age when people become eligible for Medicare given that life expectancies have risen since the program was enacted more than 50 years ago.
“And yet we haven’t seen any significant increase in the age of eligibility of Medicare, so that’s something that needs to slowly be pushed back,” Stella said in a recent interview with the Daily Herald editorial board.
Raising the eligibility age “has to be done in a humane manner,” Stella said.
“Someone in their 30s, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that maybe now they need to look at a two- or three- or a four-year extension to what the eligibility is,” Stella said. ” … You cannot take someone in their 60s and say, ‘Oh, suddenly you’ve got a two-year extension, and you’re going to have to work another two years before you’re eligible for that.'”
Foster, a Naperville Democrat seeking his fourth term representing the 11th District, equated pushing back the eligibility age to cutting Medicare, though Stella disagreed.
“Unlike my opponent, I do not believe in cutting Medicare or raising the eligibility age, which amounts to a complete cut for everyone who you exclude from Medicare eligibility,” said Foster, a former particle physicist. “In fact, I think we should move in the opposite way.”
Foster said proposals to allow people in their 50s to buy into Medicare “should be looked at very hard.” In a follow-up statement, Foster said lawmakers should task the Congressional Budget Office and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service with estimating the costs of Medicare buy-in premiums to “determine if this is a promising, realistic option.”
“One of the most critical health care challenges in this country are faced by middle-aged people who are struggling with high medical costs as they age but before they are old enough to qualify for Medicare,” Foster said in the statement. “A promising way to meet this need is to allow people aged 55-64 to buy into Medicare at cost — meaning the premiums would be adjusted to cover the actuarial value of the Medicare coverage for people in that age group. This would effectively be a ‘public option’ for people in that age range, and would not cost taxpayers any money.
“I previously supported a public option for all Americans when I voted for the House version of the Affordable Care Act. I believe this would be a useful step towards a public option for all Americans.”
How would Foster shore up the program’s future?
“One way that we can do that is to do what I supported in the past, which is to make the cap on earnings — right now you tax earnings only to about $125,000 and then it stops,” he said in the editorial board interview. “I believe that once you get above, say $250,000, above the middle class, that we should resume taxing those at roughly the same rates. That would largely solve the solvency problem.”
Foster doesn’t back “Medicare for All” legislation, a model championed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to have a government-run system cover all Americans.
“It has an unknown cost, and I think it has not looked honestly at what the limits have to be for people who present themselves to our system with no assets and no insurance,” he said.
Finding a cure for chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s and diabetes would help reduce the strain on Medicare funding, Foster said.
“There are in fact drugs fairly far along the pipeline that will deal effectively and not too expensively with diabetes, and if we could come up with a low-cost cure for diabetes, that alone would solve the long-term stress on health care spending in our country,” he said. “Similarly, roughly a third of our Medicare spending goes toward diabetes, and we’re within sight in the next 20 years of another third going toward Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is a tougher nut to crack, but I think that our government has been underinvesting in the research that will lead to cures for both of these. It will pay off many times over.”
The 11th District spans parts of Cook, DuPage, Kane, Kendall and Will counties, including Aurora, Naperville, Bolingbrook, Burr Ridge and Joliet.