Raising the Age of Medicare Eligibility: Where Does the Public Stand?

President Obama is willing to consider cuts to the entitlement program to reduce the deficit, but would not agree to increase the Medicare eligibility age as part of a deficit reduction deal with Republicans, Press Secretary Jay Carney announced in a press conference on February 11, 2013. With Congress divided along party lines on this alternative to reducing the deficit, where does the public stand?

Findings on Public Opinion

Historically, the large majority of the public has been opposed to raising the age of Medicare eligibility, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation Data Note (KFF). KFF surveys from 1995 through 2008 on proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age indicated that public opinion remained fairly stable during this period. More recently, however, KFF found that the gap between those who support raising the age of Medicare eligibility and those who oppose it is narrowing. KFF noted that this change coincides with the discussion of the federal budget deficit and suggested that this might be an indication that the public might be more open to increasing the age of Medicare eligibility if they believe it would preserve the financial health of the Medicare program. While seniors are more likely to oppose changes to Medicare that impact current beneficiaries, KFF explained that seniors may find raising the Medicare age of eligibility a “more attractive option.”

A January 2013 poll of 1,347 adults age 18 and older, which was designed and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that Americans were divided, with 51 percent opposed to raising the age of Medicare eligibility and 48 percent supportive. The survey found that the public’s views on raising the age of Medicare eligibility varies by political party identification and age. In addition, the survey  suggests that public opinion on raising the age of eligibility remains malleable.

Specifically, Republicans and independents are much more likely to support the change compared to Democrats, Kaiser said. Overall, a majority of Democrats oppose raising the age of Medicare eligibility (58 percent), while Republicans and independents are more evenly split over the proposal. 

Seniors aged 65 years and older are much less likely to oppose raising the age of Medicare eligibility compared to nonseniors. Sixty-four percent of seniors support the change, while 55 percent of those under the age of 65 oppose raising the age of eligibility.  There was no difference in opinion between near retirees (50‐64 years old) and younger individuals, even though near retirees are the group that would be most immediately affected by the change.

The survey found that when individuals who were initially opposed to the policy (51 percent) were given a counterargument that the proposal would save the federal government money and help preserve Medicare for the long term, three in ten were more likely to favor the change. KFF stated that this finding suggests that framing the change as a way to preserve Medicare increases support for the policy. Alternatively, when the 48 percent who initially favored raising the age of Medicare eligibility were told that the proposal would increase costs for employers and those near retirement age as well as leave people uninsured, just over half of the group said they would be more likely to oppose the age change. KFF concluded that these findings suggest that the near‐even split in opinion found in the initial question about the proposal is malleable.

Estimated Savings and Costs

In a study conducted in March of 2011, Kaiser found that raising Medicare’s eligibility to 67 in 2014 would generate an estimated $5.7 billion in net savings to the federal government, but would result in an estimated net increase of $3.7 billion in out-of-pocket costs for 65- and 66-year-olds, who would be expected to obtain alternative sources of coverage, and $4.5 billion in employer retiree health-care costs.  In addition, the change would raise premiums by about 3 percent for those who stay on Medicare and those who obtain coverage through health reform’s new insurance exchanges.