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To demonstrate how much control the government already has over our health care system, former House Republican Leader Dick Armey made this comment about Medicare on a recent episode of the
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Senior citizens "see this as a hostile government takeover of all health care, where they will be forced into a government-run program, and their health care lives will be managed by the government, just as today's the case in Medicare," Armey, currently chair of FreedomWorks, a conservative activist group, said on the Aug. 13, 2009, episode. "If you're over 65 years old in America today, you have no choice but to be in Medicare. Even if you want out of Medicare, you have to forfeit your Social Security to get out of it."
We wondered if the rules for Medicare were are rigid as Armey described, and, as usual with government programs, we found it's more complicated than we expected.
First, we wanted to find out how Medicare enrollment works. According to the Social Security Web site, anyone who files for Social Security benefits at the age of 62 is automatically enrolled in Medicare Part A and B — coverage for hospital and doctor's visits, respectively — at the age of 65. Patients must enroll independently for private coverage or prescription drug benefits.
In some cases, people never sign up for retirement benefits and therefore they must enroll in Medicare on their own, said Dorothy Clark, spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration.
Either way, "Medicare is a voluntary program," said Clark. No one is ever required to sign up for government health benefits, nor are they required to keep them.
Nevertheless, Armey is right that beneficiaries collecting Social Security will lose those payments if they drop Medicare Part A — so long as they were enrolled in both programs in the first place, Clark said.
We were curious why Social Security and Medicare are linked, and when we asked, we found that the issue is the matter of a lawsuit that was brought against the Social Security Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2008. Among the plaintiffs is none other than Dick Armey. The plaintiffs argue that, under the Medicare Act signed in 1965 and under the Social Security Act, there are no rules requiring enrollment in Medicare Part A to receive retirement benefits. Rather, a series of subsequent policy statements have linked the two programs, which are illegal because the two departments did not follow the traditional procedure to write the new rules, according to a press release issued by the plaintiffs on Oct. 9, 2008. The policy essentially traps retirees into participating.
We asked the plaintiff's lawyer, Kent Masterson Brown, why the government had done this and he had a simple answer: power.
"That's the curiosity here," Brown said. "[The departments] want to control every body."
It turns out the NewsHour got a few viewer inquires angry that host Judy Woodruff did not do enough to challenge Armey on that point, according to Michael Getler, PBS ombudsman. Instead, Woodruff asked the other guest, Richard Kirsch with the liberal advocacy group Health Care for America Now, to challenge Armey's claim, but he didn't offer a specific rebuttal, leaving Armey's claim up in the air.
So, back to Armey's claim. He's wrong that Medicare is required for everyone over the age of 65, but he's correct that those who want out of the program will lose their Social Security benefits as well. To us, that's a clear-cut Half True.
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Aug. 13, 2009, transcript , accessed Aug. 24, 2009
Medicare enrollment handbook , accessed Aug. 24, 2009
Trading Markets, Lawsuit Against Social Security Administration and HHS Filed Today , Oct. 9, 2008
Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Retired Navy
Civilian Engineer Join Lawsuit Challenging Rules Denying Social
Security Benefits to Citizens Who Opt Out of Medicare , Dec. 16, 2009
Public Broadcasting System, The Ombudsman Column , Aug. 21, 2009
Interview with Dorothy Clark, spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration
Interview with Kent Masterson Brown, represenative for the plaintiffs in Hall vs. Leavitt
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