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Mike McFadden open to raising the age for Medicare benefits

The GOP’s U.S. Senate candidate is also open to Social Security fixes, but wasn’t willing to say what measures he would endorse to extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund.

Mike McFadden: "The senior safety net is heading towards bankruptcy because of irresponsible politicians like Al Franken who’ve used scare tactics to win elections."
McFadden for Senate

This is one in an occasional series of articles about the policy positions of U.S. Senate candidates Mike McFadden and Al Franken.

In order to head off the projected insolvency of the Medicare Trust Fund, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mike McFadden would favor raising the age of eligibility for Medicare benefits.

McFadden is open to other fixes for the analogous problem with Social Security, but wasn’t willing — despite being pressed on it several times in a recent interview — to indicate any measures he would endorse to extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund.

McFadden took several other policy positions in an interview last week, which I will write about soon. But this piece will focus on a long, somewhat strange exchange over the big senior entitlement programs.

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As regular Black Ink readers know, I’ve been pursuing McFadden for policy specifics. To his credit, he has granted me several interviews recently to pursue those positions. Last Friday, we went over a specific set of issues on which, to my knowledge, he had not yet taken a coherent position.

One of them was the projected insolvency of Social Security and Medicare. “Insolvency,” by the way, doesn’t mean going broke, as it is too often termed. It means that official and reasonable projections for both Social Security and Medicare indicate that they will in the foreseeable future not be able to pay all promised and projected benefits from the dedicated income streams (mostly FICA payroll taxes) that have supported the programs for decades.

In the issues section of his campaign website, where many of his position statements raise far more questions than they answer, McFadden says:

Save Medicare & Social Security From Going Bankrupt. We can keep our promises while also being realistic about the challenges our current program faces. The senior safety net is heading towards bankruptcy because of irresponsible politicians like Al Franken who’ve used scare tactics to win elections. We have to take action to preserve this important program for future generations.

I had been asking what action McFadden proposed to take to save the big senior entitlement programs from bankruptcy. Even though he had the question in advance, and had agreed to the interview, it was surprising how hard McFadden fought to avoid committing himself to anything resembling a change in either program that would extend their projected solvency. On the chance that you might find it interesting or amusing, here’s the full exchange:

Eric Black: What is your proposal for extending the actuarial life of these programs?

Mike McFadden: We have a problem in this country. We have a problem with our senior entitlements and I believe this is a perfect example of how broken Washington is. We don’t address the issue. Here’s the facts, Eric, and you know them. Right now if you look at Social Security and Medicare, in 1950 there were 16 workers per retiree. Today there are three per retiree. And we’re headed toward two per retiree. The Social Security Administration says that Social Security is insolvent in 19 years, in 2033. Insolvent. That’s from the Social Security Administration. The CMS [Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] says Medicare is insolvent six years later, in 2026. [EB: I know, the math on those two dates doesn’t work].

EB: OK, so what’s your proposal?

MM: My proposal is that we address it now, in a bipartisan fashion and that every issue is on the table. Anytime a politician in Washington tries to address long-term entitlements they get demonized. You asked about what scare tactics Al Franken used. In 2008, a Franken ad falsely implied that Norm Coleman would take away survivor benefits, and Tom [an aide to McFadden] will send you the back up on that. [EB: I’ll do a short separate on that allegation in the next few days.]

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But it’s not just Senator Franken. This is Washington. Anytime they try to fix something … we are on the road to insolvency and [if] we address it today when we have optionality, we can do it in a way where we don’t affect anybody, Eric, that’s near-term retirement. That wouldn’t be fair.

EB: What is the way that you would favor. I understand that you want to negotiate, but which of the proposals to make this happen would you support at the table?

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MM: What I would support at the table is sitting down and looking at, when I say everything is on the table, everything’s on the table. What I wouldn’t support is anything that would change the benefits for people that are nearing retirement. And by that I mean 10, 12 years from retirement

EB: I believe that’s almost a universal agreement that people who are at or near retirement have to have their promised benefits guaranteed. I haven’t heard you mention anything that is going to make the situation better as far as heading off that [projected insolvency].

MM: What I have said is I’ll sit at the table and get this fixed. I’ve heard many people say that we don’t have a Social Security or Medicare issue. I think that’s wrong. In fact I think it’s immoral. We are making promises to our kids that we can’t keep.

EB: OK, so you disagree with people who say there’s no problem. You think there is a problem. You want to sit at the table and you want to do something. There’s certain things you don’t want to do. You haven’t mentioned yet anything that you do want to do. To change the program.

MM: So what I want to do, let’s look at Social Security. Social Security you have two issues. You have a demographic issue and you have health-care costs. [At this point, he apparently realized that he was talking about Medicare, not Social Security, so he switched]. So on Medicare you’ve got two issues: you’ve got a demographic issue and a cost issue. And I think we need to look at the retirement age and what age an individual becomes eligible for Social Security, excuse me, for Medicare.

EB: Obviously look at raising it?

MM: Yeah. Absolutely. And you know, Eric, if we were progressive, when this was put into place when the average lifespan was significantly lower than it is today, you’d almost put it in as a formula, take the average lifespan minus some number of years. Because otherwise we’re gonna have to revisit this question.

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EB: So one thing is to raise the age for Medicare benefits and maybe put in place a formula that would cause it to continue going up in line with changes in life expectancy?

MM: Yeah, you tie it to life expectancy. Who knows how long our kids will live?

EB: And you are in favor of raising the age it for Social Security as well?

MM: Well, right now they already did, they raised it to 67. I think you know we would need to look, you know they phased that in and they gave people ample amount of time to do that.

EB: That’s still headed for insolvency, so what would you do about it?

MM: We need to put all options on the table.

EB: Tell me about the options that you would put on the table that you would support.

MM: Everything, Eric.

EB: Everything anybody can think of that could be done that would extend the solvency of Social Security, you’d be for?

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MM: No, I didn’t say that I would be for; all I would say is that we have to look at all the different options.

EB: Oh, you favor looking at them all?

MM: What I said is that I favor looking at them and coming up with a solution, and one that allows us to save Social Security and Medicare. 

EB: OK, so you’re not at this point prepared to talk about elements of the solution that you would favor, you just think it needs to be solved and all options need to be on the table?

MM: That’s right, all options need to be on the table; we have a problem. Politicians have not addressed it. Any time that people have tried to address it and say that we have a problem, they get accused of not being sensitive to seniors, and I think we have to address it so that we can save these programs.

That’s the end of the exchange on the entitlements, although we talked about several other topics, some of which I will write about soon.

It’s fairly obvious that McFadden didn’t come into the conversation intending to announce a position on changing the age for Medicare benefits. I insisted fairly hard that everything-is-on-the-table was not a position — even though he said himself that anyone who takes such a position risks being “demonized.”