Friday, December 11, 2009

Medicare For All

I am not an expert, but I have tried to follow the ongoing health care debate through all its twists and turns this year. Reform is crucial for small business owners, who consistently say that providing health care benefits for their employees is the most costly problem they face.

So while I'm not sure exactly what's in this newest Senate compromise plan (no one is sure because the details haven't been released, pending a cost analysis), I am intrigued by the idea of extending Medicare coverage to individuals 55 and older.

For years, as a retirement columnist, I wrote about efforts aimed at keeping middle-aged and older people in the job market. They could semi-retire and continue on a part-time basis at their jobs. Or they could retire outright but work as consultants, perhaps training employees for their previous employers. Many were encouraged to freelance a few days or weeks a month as a way to supplement their income and retain their expertise.

Why the focus on stopping or slowing retirement? Believe it or not, just a few years ago the worry was about too many seasoned employees leaving the workforce early. It's hard to believe in our current jobs crisis, but back then (early to mid-2000s) the experts were panicked about a potential lack of U.S. workers.

Baby boomers, the first of whom are now in their early 60s, are such a huge demographic that economists worried when they retired there would not be enough younger workers to replace them. And the numbers bear that fear out - Gen. X and Y'ers can never match the 78 million Boomers for sheer size and clout.

Of course, life is strange and now we have the exact opposite problem. Boomers who saw their retirement funds evaporate last year have stayed on at their jobs longer than anticipated and canceled plans for early retirement. In fact, while we have record youth unemployment, Boomers are the only demographic actually seeing job growth in this recession.

So where, you ask, does expanding Medicare come into this equation? I think that Boomers may revisit their ideas about retirement over the next couple of years as they see the economy begin to right itself. Already, stock portfolios are recouping losses. If reasonable medical coverage were available through buying into Medicare before 62 or 65, some of those Boomers might feel comfortable at least exchanging full-time jobs for part-time, or consulting.

And as the behemoth generation begins to back away from the workforce, that will open up slots for the younger employees who right now are in holding patterns, either in grad school or living in mom and dad's basement.

A perfect solution? Probably not, because they simply don't exist. But it's an idea that may have found its time.

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