(AP) Medicare hike could also hit some in middle class
By RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR
Retired as a city worker, Sheila Pugach lives in a modest home on a quiet street in Albuquerque, N.M., and drives an 18-year-old Subaru.
Pugach doesn’t see herself as upper-income by any stretch, but President Barack Obama’s budget would raise her Medicare premiums and those of other comfortably retired seniors, adding to a surcharge that already costs some 2 million beneficiaries hundreds of dollars a year each.
More importantly, due to the creeping effects of inflation, 20 million Medicare beneficiaries would end up paying higher “income related” premiums for their outpatient and prescription coverage over time.
Administration officials say Obama’s proposal will help improve the financial stability of Medicare by reducing taxpayer subsidies for retirees who can afford to pay a bigger share of costs. Congressional Republicans agree with the president on this one, making it highly likely the idea will become law if there’s a budget deal this year.
But the way Pugach sees it, she’s being penalized for prudence, dinged for saving diligently.
It was the government, she says, that pushed her into a higher income bracket where she’d have to pay additional Medicare premiums.
IRS rules require people age 70-and-a-half and older to make regular minimum withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement nest eggs like 401(k)s. That was enough to nudge her over Medicare’s line.
Currently only about 1 in 20 Medicare beneficiaries pays the higher income-based premiums, which start at incomes over $85,000 for individuals and $170,000 for couples. As a reference point, the median or midpoint U.S. household income is about $53,000.
Obama’s budget would change Medicare’s upper-income premiums in several ways. First, it would raise the monthly amounts for those currently paying.
If the proposal were already law, Pugach would be paying about $168 a month for outpatient coverage under Medicare’s Part B, instead of $146.90.
Then, the plan would create five new income brackets to squeeze more revenue from the top tiers of retirees.
But its biggest impact would come through inflation.
The administration is proposing to extend a freeze on the income brackets at which seniors are liable for the higher premiums until 1 in 4 retirees has to pay. It wouldn’t be the top 5 percent anymore, but the top 25 percent.
Required withdrawals from retirement accounts would be the trigger for some of these retirees. For others it could be taking a part-time job.
One consequence could be political problems for Medicare. A growing group of beneficiaries might come together around a shared a sense of grievance.
The latest proposal ramps up the reach of means testing and sets up a political confrontation between AARP and liberal groups on one side and fiscal conservatives on the other. The liberals have long argued that support for Medicare will be undermined if the program starts charging more for the well-to-do. Not only are higher-income people more likely to be politically active, they also tend to be in better health.
Fiscal conservatives say it makes no sense for government to provide the same generous subsidies to people who can afford to pay at least some of the cost themselves. As a rule, taxpayers pay for 75 percent of Medicare’s outpatient and prescription benefits. Even millionaires would still get a 10 percent subsidy on their premiums under Obama’s plan. Technically, both programs are voluntary.
It still doesn’t sit well with Sheila Pugach. She says she’s been postponing remodeling work on her 58-year-old house because she’s concerned about the cost. Having a convenient utility room so she doesn’t have to go out to the garage to do laundry would help with her back problems.