Biden doubts Medicare benefits expansion could make it into infrastructure package

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden said key Democratic centrist senators are opposed to adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare. (Photo credit: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)

President Joe Biden expressed major doubts that adding new benefits to Medicare will make it in a more than trillion-dollar infrastructure package being negotiated in Congress.

Biden admitted during a CNN town hall Thursday that key centrist senators have an issue with adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare. The remarks come as Democrats in Congress start to coalesce around the infrastructure package.

The president said he supported adding the benefits to Medicare and that “it’s not costly in relative terms, especially if we allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices.” But he admitted adding the new benefits is a “reach” because of opposition from centrist Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Biden said that Manchin is concerned about Medicare potentially running out of money.

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However, Biden is exploring ways to work around the issues and get support. He pointed to a potential $800 voucher to beneficiaries to help them pay for dental care, which would be the most expensive part of the three benefits.

Hearing benefits could be cheaper than dental, but he also mentioned that soon people can buy over-the-counter hearing aids.

“We haven’t gotten a consensus yet on how to deal with seeing, glasses,” he said. “So ‘it’s not done yet’ is the answer.”

Biden’s remarks come as Democrats are deciding what to pare down in the package. Originally, Democrats pursued an infrastructure package with a $3.5 trillion price tag and would tackle the Medicaid coverage gap, new Medicare benefits and other priorities.

But opposition from centrists has pared down the cost of the package to roughly $2 trillion.

Democrats have a slim majority in the House and can’t afford any defections in the 50-50 Senate. The party is using a procedural tool called reconciliation that would enable a budget bill to pass the Senate via a simple majority and bypass a legislative filibuster.