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House Democrats on Thursday approved at the committee level several healthcare reform proposals making up President Joe Biden’s "Build Back Better" agenda, including a boost to health benefits for seniors and a program for 12 weeks paid family and medical leave.
The Ways and Means Committee approved by a vote of 24-19 an initiative favored by the liberal faction of the Democratic Party to expand benefits under Medicare, the government healthcare program for seniors, adding coverage for many dental procedures, vision services such as eye exams, and doctor-prescribed hearing aids. The legislation would be just one part of the infrastructure and social spending package that Democrats are hoping to send to President Joe Biden's desk through the reconciliation process, which allows for bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority, bypassing any GOP filibuster.
Democrats have said that they intend for the entire package to amount to $3.5 trillion. While they have not provided an updated cost estimate for establishing a paid leave law, Biden estimated in April that it could cost $225 billion over a decade. Meanwhile, Democrats have not issued a spending estimate for bolstering Medicare benefits, but the Congressional Budget Office, the federal agency that provides budget information to Congress, projected in 2019 that the proposal could raise spending by approximately $358 billion.
Traditional Medicare currently does not cover dental, vision, and hearing. Seniors who want that extra coverage must enroll in a Medicare Advantage Plan. As of 2020, nearly 4 in 10 Medicare beneficiaries were enrolled in an Advantage Plan, roughly 24 million people out of about 62 million enrollees overall.
“Filling the coverage gap by investing in hearing, vision, and dental benefits will improve beneficiary health, improve quality of life and reduce Medicare spending in the long term. This is exactly the type of investment we should be making for America's older population and those with disabilities,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who co-wrote a bill introduced in July that would add Medicare coverage for dentures, basic cleaning, and other preventive oral health measures.
However, Republicans such as California Rep. Devin Nunes attacked the Democrats as engaging in a “destructive mission” to add pricey benefits to the government program and ignoring the good that Medicare Advantage plans do to provide those extras.
“We are wasting time adding a series of so-called benefits into the unsustainable Medicare fee service system,” Nunes said. “Those benefits are already available through private Medicare Advantage plans, which charge zero monthly premiums and come with an out-of-pocket cap, unlike fee for service.”
Nunes added, “Then why are not Democrats strengthening Medicare Advantage? Well, because it doesn't achieve my Democrat socialist friends’ mission for a socialist takeover of the healthcare system.”
Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders also lamented some of the terms of the House bill, such as the long way that seniors would have to endure before dental benefits are phased in, currently set for 2028.
“Do I think we should take such a long time to implement the dental provisions? No, I don't,” he said earlier this week.
The committee sent another big-ticket item to the House Budget Committee on Thursday. Members voted 24-19, largely along party lines, to ensure 12 weeks of paid leave annually for most workers who have at least four hours of caregiving responsibilities per week. People would have the ability to collect at least two-thirds of their earnings — up to $250,000 for most workers and a larger amount for low-income workers — for reasons including sickness and childbirth. The eligible employees would have to file applications for leave for benefits to be paid out by the Treasury.
Republicans on the committee attacked the entitlement programs as having a one-size-fits-all approach. Indiana Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski called it “a poorly designed program so bad that even the most radical Democrat lawmakers should take a second look.”
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Florida voted against the paid leave measure, citing a lack of details and clarity about the package, the legislative text of which is still being written. Murphy was also the only Democrat to vote against expanding benefits for Medicare beneficiaries on Friday.
The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over all revenue-raising measures but has yet to release draft legislation on tax hikes to pay for the added benefits.
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Original Author: Cassidy Morrison