Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., declared that expanding Medicare to cover dental, vision, and hearing benefits as part of the massive $3.5 trillion spending bill winding its way through Congress was "not negotiable."
His hardline position is unsurprising.
After all, he is the country's most high-profile proponent of a complete government takeover of health insurance. Assigning the federal government responsibility for seniors' dental, vision, and hearing care would seem to represent one more step toward Medicare for All.
But it's odd for a self-styled champion of the working class to prioritize a staggering increase in public health spending that would benefit the single wealthiest age group in the country — people 65 and older.
Sanders isn't alone in his campaign to add dental, vision, and hearing coverage to Medicare.
The House Progressive Caucus — whose members include such left-wing firebrands Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. — have made expanding Medicare in this way among their top goals, too.
Why would progressives, who are constantly braying for higher taxes on the rich, prioritize giving even more public benefits to people who already enjoy guaranteed coverage — and who, as a group, are relatively comfortable financially?
Millions of seniors have privately administered Medicare Advantage plans already covering dental, vision, and hearing benefits — often at low monthly premiums.
A recent analysis of Federal Reserve data found that the average net worth of Americans aged 65 to 74 was well over $1.2 million. That's nearly 16 times the average net worth of those 35 and under. It's nearly triple the average worth of Americans ages 35 to 44.
Given the urgency with which progressives have attacked this issue, one would think that dental, vision, and hearing care was out of reach for seniors.
But for most older Americans, they aren't a major expense. In 2018, the typical Medicare beneficiary spent just $60 on hearing care, $130 on vision care, and $244 on dental care.
And there are those seniors for whom dental, vision, and hearing care are cost-prohibitive, and whose quality of life suffers as a result, of course. But this push to expand Medicare's benefits wouldn't target them specifically.
Because Medicare is an entitlement — and thus is guaranteed for all seniors. The proposal would extend the new benefits to every American age 65 and older, regardless of their means.
In so doing, it would increase the federal government's health bill significantly.
A similar proposal passed by the U.S. House in 2019 carried an estimated cost of $358 billion over 10 years, according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis.
The latest report from Medicare's trustees projects that the entitlement's Part A hospital insurance trust fund will be exhausted in 2026. With one portion of the program staring at bankruptcy, is it really wise to make Medicare even more generous?
There are millions of low-income — and even middle-class — Americans who currently can't afford health coverage, much less dental insurance. This situation is largely a function of Obamacare's slate of insurance market regulations, which have made simple, low-cost coverage effectively illegal.
Expanding access to quality, affordable care for this population ought to be a prime concern for policymakers of all political stripes, much less self-proclaimed democratic socialists.
What we're seeing, instead, is a much stranger situation — one that is indicative of the bizarre logic that governs progressive health policy at this moment.
In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., last week, the House Progressive Caucus made no mention of expanding Medicaid to cover more low-income individuals.
Yet progressives will refuse to consider legislation that doesn't include lavish new health benefits for middle-class and wealthy seniors.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is "False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All," (Encounter 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes. Read Sally Pipes' Reports — More Here.
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