Medicare does “NOT PAY FOR ITSELF”

In the comments section of an earlier post 1/3 of Medicare Spending is Wasted, I had stated to everyone, “Medicare does NOT PAY FOR ITSELF.” This is what I meant by that comment:

“For more than a decade the the federal government has borrowed to pay for the rising cost of Medicare. Debt-financing of Medicare will increase sharply as the population over 65 doubles from 2010 to 2030 and the number of beneficiaries over 85—with the greatest medical needs—triple.”

Note, using borrowed money to finance Medicare is not something that will happen in the future. It began more than a decade ago. Yet, as the article notes: “Members of Congress are reluctant to argue with constituents who sincerely believe that they have ‘paid for’ Medicare with payroll taxes and premiums. Most find it more convenient to tiptoe around the minefield of Medicare financings.” So the charade continues even today.

People who believe that they have paid for their Medicare with payroll taxes and premiums are terribly naïve and do not realize how much Medicare actually costs or how much “Medicare for all” would cost.

The article goes on to explain the history of how we arrived where we are today and why I make the comment on Medicare:

“In the mid-1990s, Democrats proposed to balance the Medicare budget by limiting fees paid to physicians for services, while Republicans sought to contain the costs by transferring the program to managed care insurers and capping the annual per capita rise in premium subsidies.

In 1997 the leadership in both parties agreed to a plan that would eliminate borrowing for Medicare, principally by limiting the growth in the level of fees paid to physicians. That Medicare reform, along with increasing general revenues paid by taxpayers in the highest bracket, led to a federal budget that balanced in fiscal year 2000.

The balance turned out to be short-lived. In 2001 and 2003 Congress passed debt-financed reductions in income tax rates. And in 2003 it also suspended the application of ceilings on fees set in 1997. Later that year Congress used debt to finance a new Medicare prescription drug benefit and higher payments to Medicare managed care plans.

As a result, the portion of Medicare paid for with dedicated taxes dropped from 73 percent in 2000 to 53 percent in 2010, the year that the first of the Baby Boom generation became eligible for Medicare.”

“After the 2008 election of President Obama, Democrats sought Medicare ‘savings’ for the purpose of expanding other medical services rather than balancing the budget for Medicare. In order to offset the cost of expanded PPACA medical services for families with low incomes; they placed restrictions on reimbursement rates, provided incentives for more efficient delivery of medical care, raised the Medicare tax paid by taxpayers with high-earned incomes, and applied Medicare taxation to gains from investment.”

On the other side of the political spectrum, “Republican House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan exemplifies his party’s ambivalence toward Medicare reform. He ran as the vice presidential candidate on a ticket in 2012 that attacked the Affordable Care Act’s limits on Medicare reimbursements. Yet before and after that election, he incorporated those very cost-saving measures into his own budget plans.”

Incumbents from “both parties find it awkward to even talk about the practice of borrowing to pay for Medicare. Obviously, an extra layer of interest on debt simply increases the program’s long-term cost. Any attempt to highlight that issue naturally invites the question of whether to cut Medicare costs or raise tax revenue dedicated to the program. No mainstream politician seeks to cut benefits by almost half and down to the level payable by revenues from premiums and payroll taxes. Democrats condemn any increase in payroll taxation as ‘regressive,’ while most congressional Republicans have signed a pledge to oppose any tax increase.”

Both sides of the aisle feint a reluctance to either cut Medicare benefits or increase Medicare withholding taxes and an honest discussion with their constituents regarding Medicare financing knowing full well something must be done. Indeed, it is politically expedient to kick the can or the bucket into the next decade avoiding the third rail of Medicare.

What can we do? I will answer that question in my next post.

Notes and References:
1. “Pay As You Go” Medicare Washington Monthly, Bill White, June 23, 2014

2. Maggie Mahar writes the Health Beat Blog Maggie is also the author of Money-Driven Medicine: The Real Reason Health Care Costs So Much (Harper/Collins 2006). Mahar also served as the co-writer of the documentary, Money-Driven Medicine (2009), directed by Andrew Fredericks and produced by Alex Gibney. Before she began writing about health care, Mahar was a financial journalist and wrote for Barron’s, Time Inc., The New York Times, and other publications. Her first book, Bull: A History of the Boom and Bust 1982-2003 (Harper Collins, 2003) was recommended by Warren Buffet in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report.

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