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Yes: Should Congress buy Clinton’s Medicare buy-in plan?

SHARE Yes: Should Congress buy Clinton’s Medicare buy-in plan?

When Tim Stewart was 63 years old, his company downsized and he was forced into retirement. He received a retirement package, including health benefits that continued until he qualified for Medicare.

Stewart's wife, who was 7 years younger, was not as lucky. A breast cancer survivor, the least expensive coverage she found on the private market would have cost almost $1,500 a month. Although Mrs. Stewart was able to take advantage of her husband's health benefits for two years, she remained uninsured for five additional years until she qualified for Medicare.Bill Larkin faced a similar fate. After 30 years with the same company, Larkin lost his job. He was 60 years old. Although his health insurance was extended for three years, Larkin was left uninsured from age 63 to 65 - a precarious position for a diabetic with high blood pressure and at risk for a stroke.

Such stories are not uncommon. Close to 15 percent of all individuals age 55 to 64 lack health insurance - more than 3 million people. Americans in this age group are difficult to insure: They often do not have access to employer-based health coverage, they are more likely to have health problems, and their earning potential generally declines. The 55 to 64 age group is one of the most rapidly growing segments of the uninsured, and this problem will only escalate as the baby-boom generation grows older.

There is also a critical angle to this problem for women. Many women over 55 frequently depend on their husband's work-related insurance. They can lose insurance in the event that their spouse dies or simply retires and enrolls in Medicare before they are old enough to similarly qualify.

It is therefore clear that improving access to health insurance among this vulnerable age group is a desirable goal. We must explore avenues for improving the options of people who currently rely on nothing more than good luck to avoid illness.

In this vein, Democrats are discussing the most effective ways to address the health insurance problems that many Americans face at the end of their working lives. At the core of the recent proposal by the Clinton administration is a new option enabling Americans ages 62 through 65 to "buy in" to the Medicare program. The plan also provides vulnerable displaced workers over age 55 access to Medicare through a similar "buy in" option and additional coverage through employers.

Actuaries estimate that the monthly premium for those in the 62 to 65 age group would be $300, plus a monthly surcharge once they pass 65 and begin to receive Medicare. The cost for displaced workers ages 55 to 61 would be approximately $400 each month. This fee is considerably easier to finance than the $1,500 monthly price tag facing Mrs. Stewart. There is obviously a consumer group that stands ready to take advantage of these new health insurance options.

The recent ideas put forth by the Clinton administration demonstrate a serious commitment to address a problem that should not exist in the United States. They also demonstrate a level of responsibility that the American people expect. The proposals currently under discussion call for a completely self-financed program that in no way damages the solvency of the Medicare trust fund. Taxes are not increased; benefits do not diminish. Services are to be paid only by the people who directly benefit from them.

The beginning of a fiscally responsible proposal is on the table; it is now up to Congress to partake in a serious and constructive debate. These options must be discussed honestly, with an eye toward addressing the need that will only become more acute as baby boomers age. The problem and its possible solutions should not simply be dismissed out of hand. Let's not miss this opportunity.