- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2012

The biggest driver of the U.S. debt is Medicare. With the nation already $15.2 trillion in the red, we can’t afford to continue with this health care program’s unsustainable path. Fortunately, there’s renewed hope for genuine reform.

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, offered a solid proposal to bring the program under control last year, Democrats raked him over the coals, firing off attack ads designed to scare seniors for political gain. Mr. Ryan went back to the drawing board, made some adjustments and re-emerged last month with the support of Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat. He also has the backing of all the Republican presidential candidates.

The biggest difference between the old and new plans is the inclusion of the current Medicare fee-for-service as an option for the premium-support system. The way it would work is the government would set a co-insurance amount and provide a choice of private health-insurance plans. Seniors would then choose from the private plans or the current Medicare system based on the prices, options and benefits that fit their needs. None of these changes would affect current retirees; the move to a premium-support system would occur after 2022.

The new plan would also have means testing, giving less to wealthier seniors. All the private plans would be required to maintain at least Medicare’s current level of benefits. Also, they could not reject someone for a pre-existing condition nor charge higher rates for bad health. Unfortunately, the whole system would still be overseen and managed by the leviathan Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

During Sunday morning’s presidential debate in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich called this “a substantial improvement because it allows for a transition in Medicare in a way that makes sense.” The former House speaker had criticized Mr. Ryan’s original plan as a hard political sell, but he was quickly forced to backtrack. Front-runner Mitt Romney first came up with this compromise Medicare reform and even Mr. Gingrich last month complimented him for it: “I think Gov. Romney deserves some of the credit for having helped figure out a way to make this thing workable.”

Predictably, President Obama is clinging to the Mediscare card. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called the bipartisan proposal a “radical privatization or ending of Medicare as we know it.” Of course, that’s exactly what we need because “Medicare as we know it” is a deficit disaster.

The health care market needs the choice and competitive pricing the Ryan-Wyden plan delivers. Congress ought to put Mr. Obama on the spot by writing the legislation and getting a vote in both chambers - and then challenge the president to outline his alternative.

Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at The Washington Times.