Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Biden Is Going on Offense To Court Older Voters

Forgiving student debt is for the youngs. The Inflation Reduction Act's hidden moves to stabilize healthcare costs are for the olds.
August 30, 2022
Biden Is Going on Offense To Court Older Voters
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Biden administration’s plan to forgive some student debt is widely viewed as a pitch to young voters. But what’s gotten less attention is that Biden and the Democrats are making a big play for older voters, too.

Start with the Inflation Reduction Act. When it passed in Congress, the messaging focused on what the law would do for climate change and taxes. But when President Biden signed the bill, he led with the most politically important aspects of the law: lower drug prices for Medicare recipients, a cap on out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, and the continuation of the subsidies for 13 million Americans under the Affordable Care Act (that will be worth an average of $800 a year).

“Every single Republican in Congress voted against lowering prescription drug prices, against lowering healthcare costs, against a fairer tax system,” Biden said.

Democrats may be realizing that retirees on Social Security/Medicare in Pittsburgh are more important in the midterms than some 30-year-old electric vehicle buyers in Los Angeles who think that a $7,500 tax credit on an EV can help save the planet.

Whether they realize it or not, they have an opportunity now to force the GOP into a corner by asking why they are against solutions that affect the over-65 crowd.

Democrats are now sitting on a number of unappreciated political components—some from the IRA and some from other sources—that will significantly benefit retirees on Social Security and Medicare. These include:

(1) Stabilization of healthcare costs

(2) Extension of the ACA subsidies for 13+ million people

(3) Cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for Social Security recipients

(4) Over-the-counter hearing aids that will be available starting in October.

Let’s take them one by one.

Healthcare costs: Out-of-pocket spending on healthcare has gone from $193.5 billion in 2000 to $388.6 billion in 2020.

Effective in 2025, the IRA limits annual out of-pocket healthcare expenses to $2,000.

Also included in the law is a reduction in prescription drug prices that will be phased in over time, starting in 2026. But insulin prices will be capped at $35 a month starting in 2023. (Diabetes is a growing problem among the over-65 population, with about 30 percent of seniors suffering from it.)

Unsurprisingly, lowering drug costs is broadly popular.

Extending ACA subsidies: The IRA expands these popular subsidies through 2025. If the Biden administration hadn’t done this, then about 3 million Americans would have become uninsured in 2023.

COLA: In December 2021, the average monthly Social Security payment was $1,565. In January this number went up to $1,657 with a COLA application. In October, the COLA increase for 2023 will be announced before the midterms and it is likely to increase payments somewhere between 8 percent and 11 percent from the $1,657 level. That would be about $3,000 a year extra for seniors from 2021 to 2023.

Hearing aids: For years Congress tried unsuccessfully to allow people to buy hearing aids without a doctor’s visit and a prescription. On average, this requirement leads to an average cost of about $5,000 for someone purchasing hearing aids. But the Biden administration has made the devices over-the-counter and now predicts that the total cost of hearing aids will drop to about $3,000.

These are not insignificant issues for voters. There are about 55 million seniors in America. Of those, about 15 million have hearing difficulties. Under the current system, income level impacts who gets hearing aids and who does not. Nearly half of the older hearing-impaired Americans in the top quartile of income use a hearing aid but only about one-fourth of those in the bottom quartile do.

Democratic candidates can make a play for these older voters by saying with some credibility that their party is lowering prescription drug costs, extending the ACA subsidies for another three years, increasing your Social Security check by a fairly large amount, and saving you a bunch of money if you need a hearing aid. These fall into the pocketbook-based “what have you done for me lately” question that voters often ask.

And there’s another political bonus. After the Dobbs decision, women voters turned even more Democratic and surged in voting registration. And that advantage with women should be magnified with seniors, because they live longer and vote more.

Women reaching age 65 are expected to live, on average, an additional 21.5 years, compared with 18.9 years for men. Women represent 55.3 percent of all Social Security beneficiaries age 62 and older and approximately 63.9 percent of beneficiaries age 85 and older.

Dating back to 1998, in the last five midterms, women turned out to vote at slightly higher rates than men. For women who were eligible, 55 percent cast ballots in the 2018 midterms, compared with 51.8 percent of men. In a recent poll in July, all female voters favored Democrats over Republicans by 44 percent to 34 percent.

There is opportunity here.

Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin that have higher than average numbers of Medicare recipients and aging populations. In addition to talking about democracy and Trump, Democrats in those states ought to make J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz, and Ron Johnson explain why they oppose reducing prescription costs and making the ACA more affordable.

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.