Democrats focus on seniors while attacking GOP health care bill

WASHINGTON — As congressional Republicans enter their second week pushing to overhaul the nation’s health care system, Democrats have latched on to what they hope will be a particularly potent line of attack: the bill’s implications for seniors, a key voting group in the midterm elections.

At two marathon committee markups of the legislation last week, Democratic members of Congress blasted their colleagues for pushing through a bill that allows insurers to charge higher premiums for older people, referring to the structure as a discriminatory “age tax.” They also decried the bill’s effects on seniors in nursing homes

“It looks like our older neighbors are really going to get hammered,” said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., near the end of a 27-hour House Energy and Commerce Committee markup.

“This bill particularly preys on seniors,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who is 80, in the Ways and Means markup nearby.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., took to Twitter the next day to estimate how much more people ages 50 to 64 would pay in the individual insurance market in every county in his state under the Republican plan. He appended the hashtag #noagetax to each tweet.

The Republican legislation allows insurers to charge older Americans up to five times more than younger people for insurance, increasing Obamacare’s limit of 3 to 1. The legislation’s age-based tax credits are also smaller than Obamacare’s, though the bill’s supporters argue the costs of the plans will come down due to fewer regulations and more young people entering the market.

The AARP estimates that a 64-year-old making $15,000 a year would pay $8,400 more for coverage under the proposed Republican bill than the Affordable Care Act. Overall, people in their 50s would pay 25-30 percent more in premiums under the new plan, the group projects.

“Before people even reach retirement age, big insurance companies could be allowed to charge them an age tax that adds up to thousands of dollars more per year,” AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond said in a statement last week.

In a letter to Congress, the AARP’s Senior Vice President Joyce Rogers wrote that the organization is also concerned that the bill will put at risk long-term health care that helps low-income seniors over age 65 pay for nursing homes. About 7 million low-income seniors in this age group rely on Medicaid to help finance long-term care.

The group, whose backing was critical to the Affordable Care Act’s passage, also objected to the law’s provision repealing Obamacare’s payroll tax on wealthy people, which it argued was likely to make Medicare less solvent.

Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, from left, Reps. Sander Levin, John Lewis, Lloyd Doggett, and Mike Thompson, voice objections to the long-awaited plan by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act on March 8 on Capitol Hill. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite)

The analyses of the bill showing pain for seniors and older Americans has Democrats looking ahead to the midterms with hope. If Republicans overcome their internal divisions and get behind Speaker Paul Ryan’s law, every GOP district could theoretically see an attack ad claiming that its representative voted to squeeze seniors and older Americans — a demographic that reliably votes and has outsize influence in nonpresidential election years like 2018. Older people also tend to vote Republican — 52 percent of people over age 50 voted for Donald Trump in November, exit polls show — meaning this legislation could anger part of the GOP’s base.

“I would not want to go into a midterm election and defend what this bill does for health care for older Americans,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who worked for the Hillary Clinton campaign. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist nor an amazing feat of political spin to just tell the truth about how bad this bill is for older Americans and have that be very, very convincing to a midterm elector.”

Caroline Behringer, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, said the bill takes “direct aim at America’s seniors.”

“This repeal bill is no ‘act of mercy,’ as Speaker Ryan called it — it’s cruel and it’s merciless,” she said.

Some Republican lawmakers are objecting to how the law will affect older people. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric last week that she was worried about the bill’s effects on seniors and would likely not support it in its current form. Other Republicans are objecting to the legislation for different reasons, such as not reducing federal payments to the states’ Medicaid expansion quickly enough.

Republicans backing the bill say they’re confident overall costs will come down under their new plan — including for older people. “As you get more young people into the marketplace, it’ll bring down prices for everyone,” Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., told Fox News.

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