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Gary Johnson’s Surprising Stands on Social Security and Health Care

The Libertarian candidate wants to shake up both dramatically


Next Avenue Blogger
Next Avenue Blogger

Part of the Election 2016 Special Report

Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate, won’t be on the debate stage with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Monday. But that doesn’t mean voters aren’t interested in where he stands on the issues.

So, as part of Next Avenue’s Election 2016 reporting on the candidates’ proposals for domestic policies of keen interest to older voters, below is what we know about Johnson’s stances. (We’ll publish a similar article on Green Party candidate Jill Stein soon.)

One caveat: There’s precious little to go on for some key topics because the former Republican governor of New Mexico — who bills himself as “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” — hasn’t spoken about them and his campaign website makes no mention of them. That’s why, unlike our previous articles on Clinton and Trump, Next Avenue can’t tell you Johnson’s positions on retirement security (other than Social Security) or caregiving.

The Libertarian platform says the U.S. should “phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system.”

Social Security

In his recent 60 Minutes interview with running mate William Weld (the former Republican governor of Massachusetts), Johnson said: “There has to be reforms for Medicaid [the federal/state health program primarily for the poor] and Medicare [the federal health program for Americans 65 and older] and Social Security. And if we’re going to put our heads in the sand, if we say we’re going to do nothing in any of these areas, it’s a fiscal cliff.”

Which particular reforms to Social Security (which Johnson has called a “Ponzi scheme”)?

Actually, the 2016 Libertarian Party platform goes further than a simple “reform,” to my eyes — more like an eventual abolishment.

It says the United States should “phase out the current government-sponsored Social Security system and transition to a private voluntary system.” Retirement planning, the platform says, “is the responsibility of the individual, not the government.”

Johnson has personally endorsed privatizing Social Security, too — an idea favored by some Republicans (but not Donald Trump). This arrangement would let Americans self-direct their Social Security retirement funds through personal investment accounts, allowing them to buy stocks, for instance.

Johnson also favors raising Social Security’s Full Retirement Age from the current maximum of 67 to either 70 or 72. “Look, it’s [the Social Security Trust Fund] insolvent in the future. It’s going to be insolvent. It has to be addressed,” he told The Washington Examiner in July. Whether Americans could afford to hold off claiming until 70 or 72 to receive full benefits, however, is a real question, considering the majority of beneficiaries today start taking their Social Security money at the earliest age they can, age 62.

And Johnson would like to see Social Security begin “means testing that’s very fair.” Translation: The amount people receive in Social Security retirement benefits would be based on their financial well-being at the time they apply. Today, your benefit is based purely on your previous earnings.

Under Johnson’s FairTax plan, the Social Security payroll tax would disappear, along with the current income tax and corporate tax system. In its place would be a flat 23 percent consumption tax on goods and services.

Health Care, Long-Term Care, Medicare and Medicaid

On the face of it, the Libertarian Party’s view on health care, long-term care, Medicare and Medicaid sounds hard to argue with.

The platform says: “We favor a free-market health care system. We recognize the freedom of individuals to determine the level of health insurance they want (if any), the level of health care they want, the care providers they want, the medicines and treatments they will use and all other aspects of their medical care, including end-of-life decisions. People should be free to purchase health insurance across state lines.” (That last part echoes what Trump has said.)

But probe a little deeper into Johnson’s positions and the proposals verge on the radical, compared to our current health care system. He’d essentially abolish most health insurance and would eliminate any government involvement in health care.

Johnson would repeal Obamacare “in a heartbeat” if given the opportunity, he has said. “If the GOP bill lowers costs and improves care, I’ll sign it,” Johnson proclaimed in a CNN Libertarian Town Hall in June. On Joe Rogan’s podcast in May, Johnson blamed Obamacare for his health insurance premiums quadrupling “and I have not seen a doctor in three years,” he added. “I wish I didn’t have to have health insurance to cover myself for ongoing medical need.”

He wouldn’t have to under his main health care proposal.

Johnson would like to get rid of health insurance as we know it. Instead, Americans would buy health insurance only for catastrophic events and illness.

He believes a free-market system would lead to more affordable health care with price transparency and open competition. This system, Johnson told Rogan, “would probably cost about one-fifth of what it currently costs. We would have Gallbladders ‘R’ Us. We’d have gallbladder surgery for thousands of dollars as opposed to tens of thousands of dollars. We’d have Stitches ‘R’ Us, we’d have X-Rays ‘R’ Us. We’d have the radiologists next to X-Rays ‘R’ Us to read those X-rays.”

Critics of the proposal to let people buy health insurance across state lines — such as Frank Lalli, author of Your Best Health Care Now — say that it would likely lead health insurers to simply sell policies nationwide from the state allowing the worst policies. Lalli says they’d be “Swiss cheese plans full of holes.”

As for Medicare, Johnson told 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft, “We’re not looking to eliminate Medicare. We do believe in a safety net.”  But, he said to The Washington Examiner, “Medicaid and Medicare both need to be devolved to the states.” Johnson has referred to those programs as “the worst runaway expenditure in the federal government today.”

When he was governor, Johnson has said, “I oversaw the reform of Medicaid in New Mexico. Changed it from a fee-for-service model to a managed care model. Improved on the delivery of health care in New Mexico and saved hundreds of millions of dollars.” Johnson has maintained that if the federal government had given New Mexico 43 percent less money for Medicaid and put him in charge of the delivery of health care to the poor there without “all the strings and mandates that went along with their Medicaid money,” he could have done it.

As president, Johnson has said, he’d balance the federal budget partly by letting states restrict eligibility for Medicaid.

When iSideWith.com asked Johnson whether terminally ill patients should be allowed to end their lives via assisted suicide, Johnson answered: “Yes, but only after a psychological examination to show they fully understand this choice.” Clinton said she thought this would be an appropriate right “with appropriate safeguards and informed decision-making.” Trump did not offer his position.

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