The following editorial appeared in the Sun-Sentinel on Wednesday:
Democrats pounced recently when GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, while discussing Medicare in a town hall meeting, said, “We need to figure out a way to phase out this program …”
The next day, Bush offered this clarification: “We need to protect it for people that have it, and we need to make sure we reform it for people that are expecting it,” he said.
Naturally, his partisan critics weren’t mollified. “Bush doubles down on phasing out Medicare,” read one typical email alert from the Democratic National Committee.
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But in the same week that Bush reiterated his call for changes in Medicare to make it sustainable, so did the program’s trustees in their annual report. “Notwithstanding recent favorable developments, current-law projections indicate that Medicare still faces a substantial financial shortfall that will need to be addressed with further legislation,” the trustees wrote. “Such legislation should be enacted sooner rather than later to minimize the impact on beneficiaries, providers, and taxpayers.”
Yet the trustees, including three of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet secretaries, weren’t targeted in any DNC email blasts for their own candid assessment of the program’s financial woes and need for reform. Imagine that.
Medicare provides health care coverage to 56 million Americans who are 65 and older or disabled. That total includes more than 3.5 million Floridians. Bush, as a former two-term governor here, doesn’t have to be reminded of the importance of the program to residents of the Sunshine State.
But spending on Medicare is headed toward unsustainable levels as more members of the huge baby boom generation age into the program and health care costs climb. The trustees warned this week that the balance in Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will hit zero in 2030 – just as today’s 50-year olds are becoming eligible.
Overall Medicare spending – more than $600 billion last year – is projected to rise by 60 percent over the next 25 years. And Congress will need to shovel in more and more general tax revenue to close a growing gap between Medicare expenditures and revenue from its premiums and co-pays, which currently cover just 56 percent of its costs.
More federal funding will squeeze out spending in the budget for other purposes, such as education and environmental protection, that – ironically – are most valued by Democrats.
Bush has not called for any changes in Medicare for current beneficiaries, but suggested some money-saving changes that would apply in the future, including a higher eligibility age and means testing to require wealthier retirees to pay more. These ideas have pros and cons. They are certainly worthy of further discussion.
Democrats should be willing to engage in that discussion – not just ignore the financial problems with Medicare highlighted by the president’s Cabinet secretaries, and attack any Republican who dares offer solutions.