Tom Price
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

As I’ve noted repeatedly, I agree with Josh Marshall that the battle over Medicare could be a defining first moment for Republicans – who are set to control the presidency and both houses of Congress in January. We are now seeing other liberal pundits like David Dayen and Greg Sargent sound the alarm bells.

We’ve known for a while now that Speaker Paul Ryan is dedicated to turning the current Medicare system into a voucher program in which seniors would purchase private health insurance on an exchange (much like the Obamacare exchanges) where they would form the highest risk pool one could imagine – thus driving up costs. Instead of guaranteeing benefits, Ryan’s plan would offer subsidies (otherwise known as vouchers or premium supports) for seniors to purchase private insurance based on income.

As was noted often during the election, Donald Trump criticized the other Republican candidates for wanting to cut Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, while he promised to protect them. But as soon as the election was over, his transition web site included these two points:

* Modernize Medicare, so that it will be ready for the challenges with the coming retirement of the Baby Boom generation – and beyond

* Maximize flexibility for States in administering Medicaid, to enable States to experiment with innovative methods to deliver healthcare to our low-income citizens

Those are code words for privatizing Medicare and turning Medicaid into a block-grant program.

Now, with the nomination of Rep. Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, Trump has confirmed that his administration will join Paul Ryan in an attempt to end Medicare as we know it. If Price’s prediction is accurate, an attempt to do so could come as soon as next summer.

Both Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have been clear that Democrats will stand united to fight any attempt to privatize Medicare. And as Tierney Sneed reports, yesterday Schumer suggested that the battle could begin in the Senate’s Health and Human Services committee over the confirmation of Tom Price.

“Between this nomination, an avowed Medicare opponent, and Republicans here in Washington threatening to privatize Medicare, it’s clear that Washington Republicans are plotting a war on seniors next year,” Schumer said at a press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The New York Democrat said that he had urged his caucus to engage in “thorough, thorough vetting,” and ask “very, very careful and strong questions” during Price’s confirmation process.

“And my guess is that the American people will urge Democrats and Republicans not to put in a nominee who has these views. Now maybe he’ll change his views. Maybe he’ll modify his views,” Schumer said. “But he is going to get a lot of very strong and very thorough questions about the kinds things that he will propose.”

Who are the Democrats on that committee who will be doing that vetting and questioning? Based on current membership, it includes senators like ranking member Patty Murray, Bernie Sanders, Al Franken, Tammy Baldwin, Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren. Tough crowd, wouldn’t you say?

It might also be important to note that Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski (both of whom have been known to buck the Republican party line) are two of the Republicans on the Senate’s Health and Human Services committee.

Regardless of whether or not they are able to derail the nomination of Tom Price, that confirmation hearing will put things like Medicare and the repeal of Obamacare (including Medicaid expansion, costs controls for Medicare, etc) front and center for the American public. While the hearings are likely to only be watched by those of us who are true political junkies, they will be widely reported in the media. That ends any hope of sliding these issues under the table and the effectiveness of lying about the real agenda.

To demonstrate the impact that could have, Josh Marshall reports on a conversation TPM staff had with Senator John Boozman (R) of Arkansas. After saying that he was open to the privatization of Medicare, he qualified with this:

…in order to do something like that, in order to do a change, you’re going to need presidential leadership. You’re going to need the House and Senate working together, Democrats and Republicans. And then most importantly you’re going to need people of America to buy into it. If we can come up with something like that, i’m supportive. But that’s a lot of work.

For now, it looks like they have the president-elect on board (who knows what Trump will say tomorrow?) But a united Democratic Party combined with an informed American public is going to make privatization a difficult move to support for a lot of Republicans. Derailing Ryan’s plan to privatize Medicare as an opening salvo for how things will go for the next two years would be a major victory for Democrats.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.