House lawmakers want to freeze a small increase in Medicare premiums for physicians' services next year. Once again, Congress is choosing to ignore the massive federal entitlement's dire fiscal picture for fear of angering older voters. This move only digs Medicare into a deeper hole.
In an overwhelming vote on Thursday, the House approved legislation blocking a scheduled 2010 premium increase of $8 to $23 for Americans using Medicare Part B. The standard 2009 monthly premium for the program that pays for doctor visits is $96.40.
The 406-18 vote demonstrates a lack of political courage - a bipartisan majority united in denial of fiscal reality and unwilling to address how a program intended to help those who can't help themselves has become wasteful welfare for some who don't need it.
Proponents claim the freeze is required because low inflation means seniors won't receive a Social Security cost-of-living increase next year. But about three-quarters of the 42 million people who participate in the plan are already exempted from the fee increase under current law.
If approved by the Senate, much of the $2.8 billion cost of the change will benefit more than 2 million Medicare recipients with annual incomes above $85,000. While the move would be paid for by redirecting existing funds from another Medicare program and not added to the federal budget, that spending could be cut from the program's bottom line and save taxpayer dollars.
The move also transfers state Medicaid costs to the federal government. The rate increase for more than 7 million low-income beneficiaries whose Part B premiums are paid by states through Medicaid would instead come from federal coffers next year. While intended to be temporary, such changes are rarely reversed, and states surely will fight to keep that relief in place, likely adding to Medicare spending in future years.
The Medicare vote is just the latest example of Democratic leaders refusing to address fiscal problems in Medicare and other federal entitlements. Medicare will pay out more in benefits than it collects in 2009 for the second year in a row. Medicare's "trust fund," expected to be officially depleted by 2017, doesn't actually exist. Lawmakers already have spent those phantom savings on other programs. Medicare Revenue is spent on general federal programs when it is collected, not squirreled away for a rainy day.
The Government Accountability Office estimates that by 2027, the combined costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and interest on the debt will eat up all federal revenue. By 2047, the three entitlements alone will require every dollar the government collects annually. Delay only makes tough decisions that much harder to face.
Democrats continue to push their new government health care plans through Congress, but this is a distraction from a more immediate problem: They can't pay for health care plans enacted a generation ago. Before Congress takes on any more responsibility for health care, congressional leaders might want to show they can handle the responsibility they already have.