During his election campaign and the subsequent presidential transition, Donald Trump expressed a high degree of discomfort with reducing Medicare benefits. His position ignores the significant financial peril Medicare faces—a whopping $132.2 billion in deficits for the Part A (Hospital Insurance) trust fund over the past eight years.
That said, there is one easy way in which the new administration could advance the cause of entitlement reform: allow individuals—including wealthy individuals, like, say, Donald Trump—to opt out of Medicare.
Under current Social Security Administration (SSA) practice dating back to at least 1993, individuals who apply for Social Security benefits are automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A (hospital coverage). While Medicare Part B (physician coverage) requires a separate application process and monthly premium payment, Part A is effectively mandatory for all Social Security recipients. Individuals who do not wish to enroll can do so only by not applying for Social Security benefits. Put another way, the federal government holds individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage as leverage to forcibly enroll them in Medicare Part A.
If you think the government holding benefits hostage to forcibly enroll seniors—even wealthy ones—in taxpayer-funded Medicare sounds more than a little absurd, you wouldn’t be the first one. Several years ago, several conservatives—including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey—filed a lawsuit in federal court, Hall v. Sebelius, seeking to overturn the SSA guidance. The plaintiffs wanted to keep their previous private coverage, and did not wish to lose the benefits of that coverage by being forcibly enrolled in Medicare Part A.
We Have A Roadmap To Remedy This Problem
Unfortunately, both a federal district court and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with the federal government. The majority opinions held that the underlying statute distinguished being “entitled” to Medicare Part A benefits from “enrolling” in Part B, meaning the government was within its rights to deny the plaintiffs an opportunity to opt out of Part A.
However, a dissent at the Court of Appeals by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson can provide a roadmap for the Trump Administration to remedy the absurd scenario of individuals being forcibly enrolled in a taxpayer-funded program. Judge Henderson held that the Social Security Administration had no statutory authority to prohibit (via its Program Operations Manual System, or POMS) individuals from disclaiming their Medicare Part A benefits. While the law “entitles” individuals to benefits, it does not give SSA authority to force them to claim said benefits. SSA published guidance in its program manual exceeding its statutory grant—without even giving the public the opportunity for notice-and-comment before establishing its policy.
It’s Time To End The SSA’s Kafka-esque Policies
During the Cold War, East German authorities referred to the barriers surrounding West Berlin as the “Anti-Fascist Protective Wall”—implying that the Berlin Wall stood not to keep East Berliners in East Germany, but West Berliners out. One can’t help but notice a similar irony in the Medicare opt-out policies developed by the Social Security Administration. After all, if Medicare is so good, why must SSA hold individuals’ Social Security benefits hostage to keep them enrolled in the program?
The Trump Administration can easily put an end to the Social Security Administration’s Kafka-esque policies—and take one small step towards reforming entitlements—by instructing the new Commissioner of Social Security to work with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to develop a means for individuals to opt out of the Medicare Part A benefit. The savings from such a policy would likely be modest, but why should the federal government force the expenditure of taxpayer dollars on benefits that the beneficiaries themselves do not wish to receive?
The simple answer: it shouldn’t. Perhaps Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren view forcible enrollment in Medicare as “punishment” for wealthy seniors. But at a time when our nation faces nearly $20 trillion in debt, individuals of significant means—whether Bill Gates, Donald Trump, or even Hillary Clinton—shouldn’t be forced to accept taxpayer-funded benefits. The Trump Administration eliminating this government absurdity would represent a victory for fiscal responsibility—and sheer common sense.
This post was originally published at The Federalist.