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Higgins suggests opening Medicare to those over 50

WASHINGTON — People who are 50 and older would be able to buy into Medicare, the government-run health insurance plan for seniors, under legislation unveiled Thursday by Rep. Brian Higgins of Buffalo and several of his Democratic House colleagues.

The bill, to be formally introduced in the fall, would allow anyone ages 50 to 64 to buy Medicare coverage on any of the health care exchanges set up under the Affordable Care Act, Higgins said.

The measure would even allow companies to offer older employees a Medicare option when they pick a health plan every year. Popular "Medicare Advantage" managed-care plans would be open to people in the 50-64 age range, too.

The measure aims to help lower health costs for middle-aged people who are still relatively healthy, but who pay more for insurance on the nation's health exchanges than younger people.

"This bill would mean an immediate cost reduction for health care for people aged 50 to 64," Higgins said. "They would immediately save 40 percent from the premiums they are paying now."

Higgins said the bill offers a serious alternative to Republican health care proposals where people in the 50-64 age group would "get clobbered" by higher premiums than they are currently paying.

Rep. Joe Courtney, a Connecticut Democrat who joined Higgins in introducing the bill, agreed.

"This will be a real Godsend to people who are self-employed and running small businesses," Courtney said.

House GOP budget partially privatizes Medicare, slashes Medicaid

Higgins' bill won't immediately become law, but it is likely to attract significant Democratic support. It already has 14 House co-sponsors, and Higgins said members of the House leadership are interested in the measure.

The bill fleshes out a "Medicare for More" proposal that Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, floated but never strongly pushed during her campaign.

A similar proposal died during the 2009-2010 debate over the bill commonly referred to as "Obamacare." Republicans portrayed it as a pathway to an eventual single-payer health system, and the American Medical Association and insurance companies opposed it, saying it could further weaken a Medicare system that's already expected to run into financial problems in the future as the population ages.

But Higgins said Thursday that his bill could do just the opposite. Still under development, the measure could include premiums low enough to be a bargain but high enough to actually bolster the Medicaid trust fund, he said.

Called "the Medicare Buy-in and Health Care Stabilization Act," the measure includes several other provisions aimed at improving the health care system.

It would allow Medicare — already the nation's largest health insurer — to negotiate volume discounts on prescription drugs, which, in theory, would drive down prescription prices for others as well.

The bill would also tinker with the Affordable Care Act in ways that encourage insurers to continue offering products on the exchanges. The measure also aims to reduce health care costs by cutting down on fraud and studying other cost-saving measures.

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