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Ending Medicare 'As We Know It'

Ending Medicare 'As We Know It'

By Robert Samuelson - June 6, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Almost everyone agrees that America's health care system has the incentives all wrong. Under the fee-for-service system, doctors and hospitals get paid for doing more, even if added tests, operations and procedures have little chance of improving patients' health. So what happens when someone proposes that we alter the incentives to reward better care, not more care? Well, Rep. Paul Ryan and Republicans found out. No surprise: Democrats slammed them for "ending Medicare as we know it."

This predictably partisan reaction -- preying upon the anxieties of retirees -- must depress anyone who cares about the country's future. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that unless we end Medicare "as we know it," America "as we know it" will end. Spiraling health spending is the crux of our federal budget problem. In 1965 -- the year Congress created Medicare and Medicaid -- health spending was 2.6 percent of the budget. In 2010, it was 26.5 percent. The Obama administration estimates it will be 30.3 percent in 2016. By contrast, defense spending is about 20 percent; scientific research and development is 4 percent.

Uncontrolled health spending isn't simply crowding out other government programs; it's also dampening overall living standards. Health economists Michael Chernew, Richard Hirth and David Cutler recently reported that higher health costs consumed 35.7 percent of the increase in per capita income from 1999 to 2007. They also project, that under reasonable assumptions, it could absorb half or more of the gain between now and 2083.

Ryan proposes to change that. Beginning in 2022, new (not existing) Medicare beneficiaries would receive a voucher, valued initially at about $8,000. The theory is simple. Suddenly empowered, Medicare beneficiaries would shop for lowest-cost, highest-quality insurance plans providing a required package of benefits. The health-care delivery system would be forced to restructure by reducing costs and improving quality. Doctors, hospitals and clinics would form networks; there would be more "coordination" of care, helped by more investment in information technology; better use of deductible and co-payments would reduce unnecessary trips to doctors' offices or clinics.

It's shock therapy. Would it work? No one knows, but two things are clear.

First, as Medicare goes, so goes the entire health care system. Medicare is the nation's largest insurance program, with 48 million recipients and spending last year of $520 billion. About 75 percent of beneficiaries have fee-for-service coverage. If Medicare remains largely fee-for-service, the rest of the system will too.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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