This week Wisconsin’s Rep. Paul Ryan is at it again, once more offering a proposal that would replace Medicare. This time he’s joined by Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat. To say this proposal is better than the initial Ryancare plan—which would have totally privatized Medicare—is something akin to saying replacing your birthday cake with dirt is better than replacing your birthday cake with rocks.
Even policy observers inclined to be sympathetic to Wyden’s intentions are critical of this new plan. Ezra Klein says it’s “not a compromise proposal” and doesn’t advance cost control or coverage. Jonathan Cohn says that the Ryan-Wyden plan doesn’t actually improve upon Medicare at all and indeed could jeopardize the guarantee of health care coverage for future retirees. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says the plan would shift more costs to seniors and potentially undermine Medicare in the long term.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was blunter, calling Ryan-Wyden “a fundamental misdiagnosis” and a proposal that would “cripple Medicare.”
Just as we shouldn’t privatize Social Security and push our seniors’ retirement security into the stock market, we shouldn’t privatize Medicare and push seniors’ health security into the hands of the insurance industry. In fact, Medicare already has some features of an exchange, through the Medicare Advantage program. And the evidence shows that traditional Medicare saves money compared to Medicare Advantage and to the private insurance market in general. Ryan-Wyden is a fictional solution.
What’s grating is not that Ryan is looking for another way to dismantle Medicare—after all, he’s repeatedly shown that it’s his top priority. No, the trouble is that Sen. Wyden—who represents more than 150,000 Working America members in Oregon—is so enthusiastically signing on.
Wyden usually votes the right way on issues that matter to working families, but being an elected leader is about more than votes. It’s about actual leadership. By legitimizing Ryan’s crusade to undermine the guarantee of Medicare, Wyden is doing damage to the priorities he ostensibly votes for.
Wyden should take a tip from his home-state colleague Jeff Merkley, a Working America member and a consistent leader on the issues that matter to his fellow members. Instead of pursuing attention by allying with right-wing politicians like Ryan, Merkley has chosen to stand out by acting as a voice for his working-class and middle class constituents: demanding real solutions to the housing crisis, insisting on accounting for the jobs impact of “Super Committee” proposals and trying to strengthen financial reform. His leadership may not get the kind of breathless praise from self-styled “centrist” pundits like Wyden does, but he’s clearly more interested in having a positive impact on working people’s lives.
If Wyden wants to boost our health care system in a way that cuts costs and actually increases access to care, how about adding a public option to health care reform?