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May 25, 2011

Johanns: Protection of Medicare a Must

Mr. Johanns: Madam President, I rise today to talk about an issue that I have found the debate to be very fascinating about. That is the proposed Medicare reform. I find the debate so fascinating because it's proceeding as if there had been no changes to Medicare recently. Anyone telling you that there have been no changes just isn't being straightforward. Sweeping changes to our Medicare system, they were debated, they were passed in the most partisan way possible. Only Democrats voted for them. And they were signed into law by president Obama. The president's new law already puts this fundamental health care program in significant jeopardy.

Now, some may come down to the floor or some may rise up and say, Mike, you're all wrong about this. They'll want you to believe that the $500 billion in cuts to Medicare in the new health care law will actually extend the Medicare program. But in reality, the health care isn't giving new life to this program at all. The congressional budget office reports that Medicare will be insolvent in 2020, just nine years from now. Yes, that's right. Complete insolvency in nine years. That's the current plan voted on and signed into law by the president. And that analysis doesn't even account for the $500 billion cuts that were taken out of Medicare to fund the health care law.

Now, don't believe me. We've consulted the experts. The experts say that the health care law counts, or attempts to count the same dollar twice. The Medicare actuary says these cuts -- and I'm quoting here -- cannot be simultaneously used to finance other federal outlays such as the coverage expansions under the health care law and, and to extend the trust fund. Unquote.

This can only mean either the new health care law doesn't have enough funding to the tune of $500 billion, or in the alternative Medicare is in more serious jeopardy than even the trustees' report points out, in jeopardy of becoming insolvent much sooner than the experts predict. So I stand here today and I tell you if you are 56 years old or younger and you're thinking about the day when you apply for your Medicare benefits, well, the experts say the trustee says, sorry, you're out of luck. Under the current law of the land, that's the case. The president's health care reform, which again I point out was passed on the most partisan of partisan votes, did not get a single Republican vote. And every Medicare beneficiary will be impacted by the cuts of this program, to this program.

So if you're out there and saying, well, Mike, I want to protect the poor, all I can tell you is the president's plan does not do that. If you're saying, but, Mike, I want to protect the middle class, all I can tell you is that the president's plan doesn't do that. And what do we get out of that? According to trustees, complete insolvency in nine years. You see, the president's reform is founded upon the unrealistic assumption that doctors will continue providing the same services to patients with a 30% cut in a Medicare program that's not covering their costs today.

I just had doctors in my office saying, Mike, we can't continue to provide Medicare services if that cut occurs. And yet, that is the current law of the land. By comparison, one of the plans we may vote on this week protects Medicare beneficiaries over 55 by just saying, look, we are going to hold you harmless. Your benefits will not be changed at all. The plan says let's fix this physician payment formula so they don't have the 30% cut, so access for Medicare patients can continue. The plan says let's protect those who are especially deserving of our support, those who are below 150% of the poverty level and truly can't afford the health care they need. You're probably say, but, Mike, what plan is that? The plan I'm talking about is Paul Ryan’s plan. Now you tell me which sounds more severe in its approach, a plan that puts government bureaucrats in charge of controlling health care costs, robs Medicare of any potential savings to start a new entitlement, and at the end of this, in nine years, bring bankruptcy to Medicare. Or a plan that empowers patients to choose their own unique plan, ensures Medicare savings are reinvested back into the Medicare program and preserves Medicare by bringing costs back to sustainable levels, which is the Ryan plan.

I want to be clear about the fact that there are some things about this plan I would love to debate and change. For example, perhaps we could devise an incremental transition within the Medicare proposal. Maybe we need to evaluate if the medical savings accounts for those most in need should be indexed to something better than the general inflation rate. Maybe those below a severe poverty line should be exempted entirely. Perhaps some of the tax reform, including elimination of certain tax deductions, needs to be eliminated. We will have the opportunity to debate and make improvements, but only if we vote to proceed to the bill.

But you know what? Arms are going to be broken all over the place here this week to make sure that that doesn't happen, because this isn't a serious attempt to try to fix the problem. This is all about messaging for campaigns and political consequences. The reality is no plan's going to get enough votes, and I'll stand here and I'll observe those arms getting broken. We'll need orthopedic surgeons on the Senate floor to fix them.

Sadly, passage was never the intention here. These plans were scheduled for votes purely for the sake of messaging on an important program that provides health care for seniors that by the trustees' own definition will be insolvent in nine short years. These votes aren't designed to fix this problem. These votes, I guarantee, are all about political fodder for next year's election season. Well, I just believe this isn't what we were elected to do on the Senate floor. These antics are what rightfully embolden those who say Congress is incapable of solving these very, very hard problems.

As the Senator from South Dakota indicated, today we mark 756 days since the Senate passed a budget. As a former governor, I can't imagine going to the people of the great state of Nebraska and saying, you know, I've been thinking about it; we won't be doing a budget this year. I'd be looking for a new state to live in. Well, 756 days in this week -- and this week we're not even making a serious attempt to deal with it. With a deficit exceeding $14 trillion, our nation needs something greater than political symbolic votes which we all know will fail. Maybe, just maybe we can muster the courage to take seriously our responsibility to seniors and to all Americans.

Madam President, thank you. I yield the floor. 

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