Paul Ryan's Moral Barbarism

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JONATHAN CHAIT MAY 3, 2011

Paul Ryan's Moral Barbarism

Karl Rove's column the other day joined the many conservatives expressing their hurt and anger that President Obama would depict Paul Ryan's budget as harming sick and vulnerable citizens:

Mr. Obama likes campaigning more than governing. And for this president, campaigning means knocking down straw men and delivering a steady stream of misleading attacks. It means depicting opponents as indecent, heartless people who take special delight in targeting seniors and autistic children.

In fact, Obama has never accused Ryan, or anybody, of having a "special delight" in targetting seniors and autistic children. But he has accused them of pursuing policies that would harm, among others, seniors and autistic children. That's because it's incontrovertably true. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities delves into the details of Ryan's plan to slash Medicaid by more than a third over the next decade, and in half over the next two decades:

  • Seniors:   An overwhelming majority of Medicare beneficiaries who live in nursing homes rely on Medicaid for their nursing home coverage.  Because the Ryan plan would require such deep cuts in federal Medicaid funding, it would inevitably result in less coverage for nursing home residents and shift more of the cost of nursing home care to elderly beneficiaries and their families.  A sharp reduction in the quality of nursing home care would be virtually inevitable, due to the large reduction that would occur in the resources made available to pay for such care.
  • People with disabilities:   These individuals constitute 15 percent of Medicaid beneficiaries but account for 42 percent of all Medicaid expenditures, mostly because of their extensive health and long-term care needs.  Capping federal Medicaid funding would place significant financial pressure on states to scale back eligibility and coverage for this high-cost population, many of whom would be unable to obtain coverage elsewhere because of their medical conditions.
  • Children:   Currently, state Medicaid programs must provide children with health care services and treatments they need for their healthy development through the Early Periodic Screening, Diagnostic and Treatment (EPSDT) aspect of Medicaid, which provides regular preventive care for children and all follow-up diagnostic and treatment services that children are found to need.  A block grant would likely permit states to drop EPSDT coverage, meaning that children, particularly those with special health care needs, would not be able to access some care that medical professionals find they need (because Medicaid would no longer cover certain health services and treatments for children, and their parents wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for that care on their own).
  • Working parents and pregnant women:   Many state Medicaid programs already have extremely restrictive eligibility criteria for parents.  In the typical state, working parents are ineligible for Medicaid if their income exceeds 64 percent of the poverty line (or $14,304 a year for a family of four), and unemployed parents are ineligible if their income exceeds 37 percent of the poverty line ($8,270 a year for a family of four).  Under a block grant, states could cut these already low eligibility levels even further, cap enrollment, and/or require low-income parents to pay more for health services.  States could do the same for low-income pregnant women who rely on Medicaid for their prenatal care, resulting in them forgoing services that are critical to ensuring a healthy pregnancy. 

Now, Rove appears to be a pathological liar, or at least so deeply enmeshed in partisan spin it's not clear that a distinction exists in his mind between objective truth and claims that are useful to his side. But many other conservatives have likewise expressed what has the ring of genuine outrage that Obama would accuse Ryan of snatching medical care away from people in nursing homes, very poor families, special needs children, and so on. I think it reflects, in part, an inability or lack of desire to think with any specificty about the concrete ramifications of imposing extremely deep cuts to Medicaid. Who do they think is on Medicaid? Prosperous, healthy people?

No, Medicaid is a bare-bones program throwing a lifeline to people who are in bad shape. Cutting Medicaid may be the politically easiest way for Ryan to clear budget room to preserve Bush-era revenue levels, as Medicaid patients have little political clout. But it is, well, deeply immoral. I'm actually surprised that conservatives not only can't seem to imagine (or care about) the consequences of such policies, but they can't even imagine that people like Obama would actually feel moral outrage at their plan. They can't imagine a liberal objection as representing anything other than an attempt to score political points. It's bizarre. I mean, of course Obama finds it morally objectionable to take away medical care to people in nursing homes and children with special needs. That's why he's a Democrat.

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posted in: jonathan chait, karl rove, obama, paul ryan

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