Congressional budget super committee: What ifs

    The Nov. 23 deadline is nearing for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and 11 congressional colleagues to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit.

    With pessimism mounting, it may be time to review what happens if the bipartisan “super committee” doesn’t strike a deal.

    Taunya English’s story is part of a project on health care in the states, a partnership between WHYY, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

    The Nov. 23 deadline is nearing for U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and 11 congressional colleagues to agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit.

    With pessimism mounting, it may be time to review what happens if the bipartisan “super committee” doesn’t strike a deal.

    The lawmakers need to come up with about $1 trillion to narrow the deficit. If they can’t agree on how to achieve that, an automatic cost-cutting trigger will be switched.

    Sheila Burke, who teaches at Harvard University’s School of Government, said much of the planned spending for fiscal years 2013 through 2021 would be “sequestered.”

    “It takes back money. So they literally remove funds from the budgets,” she said.

    Many “favored” programs are protected including Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

    “Most of the television advertising that you’ve seen is ‘Don’t cut my Medicare,'” Burke said. “There are, I think, realistic concerns about reductions in Medicare and about the defense budget, I think those are quite real.”

    Medicare would be on the chopping block, but that trim is limited to 2 percent.

    “Now in your budget and my budget, 2 percent may not sound like much, but in fact it is a substantial amount, upwards of a billion dollars,” Burke said.

    The super committee is debating all sorts of ways to tinker with Medicare, but if there are automatic across-the-board cuts, program benefits stay the same, instead, payments to doctors and hospitals would be reduced.

    Toomey and Republican colleagues offered a plan Nov. 9 that health-policy watchers say would nudge the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67.

    It’s important to remember that Toomey wants to repeal the 2010 federal health law, said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, an advocate for health-care consumers.

    “The Affordable Care Act does provide some alternatives for people to get health coverage through a new marketplace and with tax-credit subsidies.” Pollack said. “If you repeal the Affordable Care Act and then you increase the eligibility age for Medicare, it means you are going to see a lot of people in the 65- and 66-year-old age bracket who will join the ranks of the uninsured.”

    Many of those who do retire at age 65 work low-paying, physically demanding jobs, Pollack said.

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