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Medicare - The Future Of Medicare

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The future of Medicare has become a controversial political issue, mainly because it is a large and popular public program that faces projections of rapid growth in the future. As a government program, either new revenues will have to be added to support Medicare, or its growth will have to be curtailed. Much of the problem is driven by the expected increase in the number of persons eligible for Medicare—from 39 million in 2000 to 78 million in 2030—as the baby-boom generation becomes eligible for benefits. While the numbers covered by Medicare have already doubled since 1966, this is likely to be a more significant change because the share of the population eligible for Medicare will also grow from one in every eight Americans to more than one in every five.

One option for savings often discussed is an increase in the age of eligibility, although this would have only a small impact on the numbers eligible if the age were to rise from sixty-five to sixty-seven, for example. About 5 percent of beneficiaries are in this age range, but they are considerably less costly to insure than the average Medicare beneficiary. Nonetheless, this option is likely to be seriously debated as one means for reducing Medicare's costs. Another approach is to limit eligibility to persons with low or moderate incomes, changing dramatically the nature of a program that has always been very inclusive. As yet there seems to be little political support for this latter option, although proposals to ask higher income beneficiaries to bear a greater share of Medicare's costs (e.g., through an income-related premium) is more often discussed. One of Medicare's strengths is its universality and resulting broad-based taxpayer acceptance, and making high-income persons ineligible could undermine that support.

Most of the political discussion in the late 1990s and early in this century continues to focus on ways to make the program more efficient, but there is little agreement on how to do this. The two major strains of debate center on whether extensive restructuring (relying on the private sector to achieve efficiencies) is necessary, or whether more incremental changes within the current program would be sufficient. The Medicare+Choice program, for example, was enacted in an effort to rely more upon the private sector to find ways to hold down the rate of spending growth. Supporters of using the private sector to foster competition among plans serving the Medicare population would put private plans center stage, with the traditional program offered as just one of many options. This approach has been termed premium support and would require that beneficiaries wishing to stay in the traditional plan or choose expensive options pay higher premiums to do so. An even more dramatic restructuring proposal would simply give those who are eligible the resources to buy private plans with very little oversight. Supporters of these approaches promote the likelihood of greater efficiency from relying on private plans as compared to the government. Thus, savings would likely come both from charging some beneficiaries more and from any benefits of competition.

On the other hand, a substantial slowdown in growth in 1998 and 1999 was achieved for Medicare using traditional methods of limiting payments and reforming the payment structure for benefits, lending support to those who would prefer to retain the current structure with its emphasis on a public program. Reforms would still be needed, but might instead concentrate on improving the Medicare+Choice payment mechanism and adding more active management to the fee-for-service piece of Medicare. Key issues in the debate between these approaches center on which will retain the highest quality of care and the greatest protections for the beneficiaries of the program.

Regardless of whether structural or incremental approaches to change are adopted, it is unlikely that the program can be maintained in its current form without more revenues. A further complicating policy issue arises over the comprehensiveness of the benefit package. It is difficult to imagine achieving greater efficiency in the delivery of health care if major pieces of that care, such as prescription drugs, are not included in the basic benefit package. Both sides of the debate generally agree that improvements in the benefit package should be made, but this adds to the complexity of any solution because new benefits inevitably mean higher costs, putting further pressure on the need for new revenues and/or reforms in the current system. The contentious debate on the prescription drug issue in 2000 and 2001 is illustrative of the difficulty in finding common ground for reforms.

Finally, another issue that may add to the costs of the Medicare program over time is reform of the protections for low-income beneficiaries. Low participation and state reluctance to improve upon these protections suggest that they might better be moved out of Medicaid and into Medicare, but again this would raise costs for the Medicare program.

The future of Medicare will inevitably bring changes: some will come from explicit policy and legislative initiatives, but others will reflect the rapidly changing nature of the health care system as a whole. Medicare cannot be understood or administered without an appreciation for its interrelationships with the American health care system, and an aging society will inevitably put pressures on the program that will require new approaches and new funding.



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