MONEY Aging

Why Most Seniors Can’t Afford to Pay More for Medicare

Replacing Medicare with vouchers would push costs higher and put older Americans at risk.

Should seniors pay more for Medicare? Republicans think so; they have repeatedly called for replacing the current program with vouchers that would shift cost and risk to seniors.

There’s no doubt this is where Republicans will take us if they capture control of Congress this year, and the White House in 2016. Representative Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the House Budget Committee, advocates “premium support” reforms that would give seniors vouchers to buy private Medicare insurance policies in lieu of traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

Under the latest version of Ryan’s budget proposed in April, starting in 2024 seniors could opt to buy premium-supported private plans or stay in traditional Medicare. Ryan has argued that introducing competition will bring down costs over time, and capping the government’s costs does sound like a tempting way to address Medicare’s financial problems.

Medicare’s trustees project total annual spending will jump 78% by 2022, to $1.09 trillion. Much of that increase will be fueled by higher enrollment as the baby boom generation ages.

But premium supports would shift risk to seniors, and could effectively make traditional Medicare much more expensive by siphoning off healthier seniors to private plans. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that this effect could boost traditional Medicare premiums 50% by 2020 compared with current projections.

Most seniors simply can’t afford to pay more. If you doubt it, check out the new interactive tool launched last month by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, one of the country’s leading healthcare research groups.

The tool analyzes the income and assets of today’s 52.4 million Medicare beneficiaries, and how their financial picture will change between now and 2030, when 80.9 million people will be covered by the program. It can compare different demographic slices of the Medicare population based on variables such as education, race, gender and marital status—and here you get a stark look at how economic inequality affects the pocketbooks of seniors.

Kaiser’s tool is based on a simulation model developed by the Urban Institute that uses population data to analyze the long-range impact on retirement and aging issues. I encourage you to test-drive the tool, but here are some highlights:

INCOME

Fifty-three percent of Medicare beneficiaries had $25,000 or less in annual income last year; half had savings below $61,400 and less than $67,700 in home equity on a per-person basis.

The income figures reflect the sharp divisions that characterize the wider U.S. population. Just 4% of seniors had income over $100,000 last year; 27% had income below $15,000 (which is just a bit higher than the average annual Social Security benefit).

Healthcare already is one of the largest expenses for seniors, most of whom are on fixed incomes. HealthView Services, which develops software for gauging healthcare costs, recently estimated that a senior retiring this year in high-cost Massachusetts would pay $7,020 in Medicare premiums alone—a number that will jump to $11,536 in 2024. And that figure doesn’t include co-pays and out-of-pocket costs for things Medicare doesn’t cover, such as dental care. It also doesn’t include costs for a catastrophic event.

“Sixty-six thousand in savings is less than the cost of one year in a nursing home,” says Tricia Neuman, senior vice-president at the foundation and director of the foundation’s Medicare policy program. “That tells us that many people on Medicare today don’t have the resources they’d need to pay for a significant health or long-term-care expense if it should arise.”

DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDES

Neuman says she was especially surprised by the extent of the gaps in income and saving by race, ethnicity and gender. Median 2013 per capita income for white Medicare beneficiaries was $26,400, compared with $16,350 for African Americans and $13,000 for Hispanics.

Men had $25,880 in median income, compared with $21,800 for women. And married couples were better off than singles: Per capita income for married seniors in 2013 was $27,400, compared with $20,250 for divorced people, $21,050 for widows and $14,150 for those who never married.

That’s unlikely to change by 2030. “The model suggests there won’t be phenomenal changes in wealth, or that seniors will be that much more comfortable,” Neuman says.

Neuman says the data also points to continued income inequality and sharp divisions in the status of seniors. In 2030, 5% of Medicare beneficiaries will have income over $111,900, while half will have income below $28,250.

“There will always be a small share of the Medicare population with sufficient wealth and resources to absorb higher costs, but most will not be in that position,” she says. “The assumption that boomers are healthier and wealthier and that we’ll have a much rosier Medicare outlook down the road just isn’t going to happen.”

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