3 Takeaways From the Medicare Trustees Report
This was published as a Wall Street Journal Think Tank column on August 1, 2014.
The annual report from the Social Security and Medicare trustees predicted that Medicare will be solvent until 2030, four years later than the trustees predicted last year. That’s thanks to the recent slowdown in Medicare spending and a stronger economy that yields higher revenue through payroll tax contributions to the Medicare trust fund.
The administration and congressional Democrats are taking credit for elements of the Affordable Care Act that have helped to slow the growth in Medicare spending, and they warn against changes to Medicare that they fear would shift costs to seniors and undermine the program.
Republicans, however, see little good in the trustees’ report. “Don’t be fooled by the news that Medicare has a few more years of solvency,” Rep. Kevin Brady, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on health, said in a statement. More fundamental changes to Medicare are needed, many Republicans argue, such as transforming the program to a premium-support or voucher model.
Here are three points that might have been lost in the back and forth over the report by those on the left and the right:
* Contrary to conventional wisdom, Medicare appears to be outperforming the private sector. Medicare spending per capita rose at a 6.1% annual clip between 2000 and 2012 vs. a 6.5% growth rate for private health insurance. And Medicare spending is projected to rise at a 4% per capita rate between 2013 and 2022 vs. 4.9% for private insurance. (The bad news is that GDP per capita is projected to rise more slowly, at 3.7% per year.) Medicare’s problem is less poor performance and more the challenge of meeting the needs of an aging society and seniors who have modest incomes to pay for their health care.
* The ACA is projected to cut $716 billion in expected increases to providers and insurers between 2013 and 2022. Despite claims that cutting payments to providers and private plans could make the sky fall, there is no evidence so far that the industry or beneficiaries have been adversely affected by the reductions. In fact, enrollment has been growing in the private Medicare Advantage plans, which were hit by the most severe and controversial reductions, and the gains are projected to continue. So far, complex schemes to reform the way Medicare pays doctors and hospitals, which many believe hold promise, have produced mixed results in the effort to cut costs. But as $716 billion in Medicare savings demonstrates, the tried-and-true way to save money continues to be shaving a little off payment increases each year, as long as the health-care industry is still in the black and can absorb it.
* Perhaps the best news from the 2014 trustees report is that the country has a bit more time to hope for a more functional Congress that can figure out how best to finance Medicare for an aging population. It is almost impossible to envision the current Congress and administration working together on these long-term challenges.
With liberals and conservatives at odds over Medicare’s future direction and seniors such a strong voting group, it will be difficult to shift Medicare quickly in any direction. But there is good news for now in the trustees report.