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Merkley proposes Medicare option for all

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., is touting the benefits of a bill he introduced that would allow individuals and businesses to buy health insurance through an expanded Medicare program.

Merkley spoke Tuesday in Medford about his Choose Medicare Act while surrounded by representatives from Rogue Valley health clinics.

Buying into Medicare would be voluntary — not mandatory — under the bill.

Merkley noted health insurance premiums are spiking up to 90 percent in some states, although Oregon is doing a better job of controlling costs.

“This really does have a consequence on the availability of affordable, quality health care,” Merkley said.

He said the Choose Medicare Act would allow people and businesses to buy Medicare coverage, which currently covers people who are 65 and older.

Reproductive services, pediatric care and other services would be added to address the needs of younger patients, he said.

Adding Medicare as an option for all would increase competition and lower the cost of market-based health insurance, Merkley said.

He did not have an estimate on the cost of monthly premiums for individual or family health insurance purchased through an expanded Medicare program.

Merkley said a new Medicare Part E program would have to operate on its own financially by taking in money from individuals and businesses that want to join.

He said individuals also could use their Affordable Care Act subsidies to help pay for Medicare coverage.

The Affordable Care Act is also known as Obamacare.

As it now stands, Medicare is facing a serious future funding shortfall as revenues fail to keep up with rising costs and America’s aging population, according to a 2017 report issued by the Medicare Trustees.

Merkley said his Choose Medicare Act would allow Medicare to negotiate over prescription drug costs, which would lower costs for the whole program.

He noted Americans pay more than people in any other industrialized country for prescription drugs — even though taxpayers here help subsidize the cost of research and development.

“That’s outrageous. That shouldn’t be the case,” he said.

Merkley said allowing people to voluntarily buy into Medicare would save them money because the federal program pays only 3 percent of its budget toward overhead. Meanwhile, he said insurance companies spend 20 percent on overhead.

“Choose Medicare builds on the success of a known product,” Merkley said.

William North, chief executive officer of Rogue Community Health, said too many people have unnecessarily poor health because they lack health insurance and access to care.

“The Choose Medicare Act is a pragmatic approach to establishing justice and promoting the general welfare in health care and in our insurance markets,” North said.

Marya Kain, a Rogue Community Health board member, said there is a gulf between people with insurance and those who go without.

“The Medicare E bill — ‘E’ for everyone — by creating access to quality health care for all, means that we will be healthier as individuals, healthier as a community and healthier as a nation,” Kain said.

Merkley and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who joined the Oregon senator to introduce the bill, have said the voluntary buy-in program represents a middle ground between the current system and “Medicare for all” proposals.

Bernie Sanders, the Independent party senator from Vermont who made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency, is the best known proponent of universal, government-run health insurance.

Critics have said Sanders’ plan would stifle innovation, require massive tax increases and would put the health care industry — which represents a sixth of the American economy — under government control.

They also point out that many senior citizens buy private supplemental insurance to help cover what Medicare doesn’t.

Meanwhile, people and businesses who buy health insurance without government subsidies continue to grapple with rising prices.

The average annual cost of health insurance for a family of four in America hit $18,764 as of September 2017, according to the Kaiser Employer Survey.

The annual cost of mortgage payments on a $250,000 house with no down payment is $16,105, according to online mortgage calculators.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Sen. Jeff Merkley talks about a bill he co-authored to help make health insurance more affordable during a press conference at Rogue Community Health in Medford Tuesday morning.