U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, presented a bill recently that would add another supplemental plan to the Medicare program — Part E, for everyone — that could bring health care a step closer to universal coverage.

The Choose Medicare Act would offer Americans the option of buying Medicare as their health insurance plan. It would be available on all state and federal exchanges, to be in compliance with the Affordable Care Act, the ACA’s subsidies could be used to pay for it, and employers could opt with it, rather than private insurance, to cover their employees, Merkley said in a conference call Wednesday.

“So often folks say, ‘I just want a seamless, stress-free system of health care so when a loved one is sick or injured they can get high-quality care.’” he said. “We have such a plan. It’s called Medicare. Why can’t we just buy Medicare instead of waiting until you’re age 65?”

The plan

Medicare Part E would cover the same benefits as traditional Medicare, as well as additional benefits to meet the needs of those younger than 65. It would take advantage of the low administrative costs of the Medicare program and provide savings by allowing Medicare officials to negotiate drug prices.

“This would strengthen Medicare itself,” Merkley said. “Capping out-of-pocket expenses, strengthening the exchange by increasing tax credits for middle-income Americans — it’s a win-win all the way around.”

According to a press release, Part E would open Medicare to all employers to purchase “high-quality, affordable” health care for their employees without requiring them to replace their existing health insurance.

It would address the discrepancy between consumer protections in the individual and group markets by extending the Affordable Care Act’s rating requirements to all markets to end discrimination based on pre-existing conditions.

It would cover essential health benefits and all items and services covered by Medicare, Merkley said, and provide the gold-level Medicare benefit coverage.

All reproductive services would be covered, an out-of-pocket maximum would be established in the entire Medicare program, and tax credits would be extended to middle-income workers.

“Every individual and every business should have the right to buy into Medicare, and our bill allows this to finally happen,” Murphy said. “For those who think that Medicare is the right plan for all Americans, this bill puts that theory to test and allows for consumers and businesses to decide whether they want to remain on private insurance or switch to Medicare. Our belief is that the Medicare plan will be the most affordable and the most efficient, but we can’t know that unless everyone is given the choice to purchase it.”

Traction needed

Merkley said he and Murphy have 11 sponsors and co-sponsors so far, but acknowledges there will be opposition. The other sponsors include Democrats from California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Hawaii, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Connecticut, New Mexico and New York.

“When we tried to get the public option, we faced lot of resistance from private health care who didn’t want it,” he said. “They don’t like the idea of it, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are we satisfied with the health care system that’s the most expensive in the world and getting more expensive all the time and challenging for many families to participate in?’ I think we can do better. This would be a powerful force in improving health care in America.”

He cited a similar situation that occurred with worker’s compensation.

“You think SAFE is a private company? No, it’s a public option,” he said of the company that provides the insurance. “When it was revamped, it became a real competitor. It cut the cost of worker’s compensation in half in Oregon.There is a tremendous value to increasing this pressure.”

It is different than other ideas Sen. Bernie Sanders of New Hampshire and others have proffered, as well, Merkley said, noting that some of those would have eliminated private insurance companies in one fell swoop.

“Having multiple providers and single-payer efficiencies would tremendously improve health care in this country,” Merkley said. “This provides the option of buying into a single-payer, voluntary program. It’s very different than Bernie’s.”

Others don’t strengthen the Medicare program like this one, he added.

“This would increase four- to five-fold the number of folks who could participate,” he said.

Murphy, himself, did not support Sander’s bill, but is a co-sponsor of the Part E bill.

And he’s not the only one, Merkley said. Constituents are filling the ears of their elected officials with frustrations regarding the lack of affordable health care, limits on providers and confusing plans.

“It’s important to put out ideas,” Merkley said. “When Republicans wanted to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, they said, ‘Well, we could get rid of that,’ but (they offered no replacement). Now we’re seeing many members getting into the details of how health care functions and striving to say, ‘Here’s something that could work. Let’s have stakeholders comment on it. Let’s put the ideas through the test of public reaction and insight. That’s why it’s very valuable to put (the bill) out at this point.”

Even more important is that Medicare is a tested, respected program in America, Merkley said, and this would merely allow more people to participate.

“It’s an extremely popular idea,” he said. “We’ve attempted to take that vision and work out the details in designing a health care program.

“There is no perfect way to provide health care, but surely we can do better than we’re doing now,” he continued. “The Health Care for All could be an important part of driving down the cost, and creating a seamless, stress-free coverage so Americans can get the care they need.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .