- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2014

The Medicare trust fund will survive four years longer than projected just a year ago, the Obama administration said Monday, crediting President Obama’s health care law for helping shore up the country’s largest health program.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell said the Affordable Care Act is pumping the brakes on costs, meaning the Medicare trust fund will last until 2030, rather than the 2026 deadline projected just last year.

But officials couldn’t say exactly how much of the improvement is due to Obamacare and how much is a sluggish economy and a general slowdown in overall health spending — and all sides agreed that Medicare and Social Security still face long-term challenges that will be tough to tackle the longer the government waits.

“We must reform these programs if we want to keep them sound for future generations,” Mr. Lew said.

The narrative surrounding the nation’s biggest entitlement program, Social Security, also remained dire, the trustees said.

The Old-Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund will be depleted by 2034, while the disability insurance program is set to run dry in two years, trustees said. At that point, revenue will only cover 80 percent of scheduled disability benefits.

“As the largest generation in American history enters retirement, the pressure on our social insurance programs is growing and we must make manageable changes now so we do not have to make drastic changes later,” Mr. Lew said.

Since Obamacare was signed into law in 2010, all sides have debated its effects on the broader health care market and on government spending.

Mr. Obama has said it helped, and Monday’s data gave him ammunition.

Since Obamacare was enacted, the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund depletion has been extended 13 years, from 2017 to 2030.

Earlier this month, nonpartisan scorekeepers at the Congressional Budget Office said government spending on health care is likely to drop over the next 25 years, and as a percentage of gross domestic product will be 1.5 percentage points less than previously thought.

Mrs. Burwell cited improved patient safety, fewer hospital re-admissions, and new payment models such as accountable care organizations that are charged with reducing cost while improving quality for Medicare’s slightly rosier outlook in the trustee’s latest report.

“These reforms slow the rise in health care spending while improving the quality of care for beneficiaries,” she said.

But she did not know what percentage of Medicare’s improved outlook was attributable to Obamacare’s reforms and how much was due to a weak economy.

It’s a debate that has been raging in health policy circles for years, and “certainly not one the trustees are going to settle,” said Public Trustee Charles Blahous, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University who served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush for economic policy.

Either way, Mr. Blahous said it is “getting very late in the game” to form a bipartisan compromise to right the ship.

Mr. Lew said Mr. Obama stands ready to work with Congress on “tough choices” to set the entitlements on the right path, although he said the president will not support “any proposal that would hurt Americans who depend on these programs today and he will not support any programs that slash benefits for future retirees.”

Republican lawmakers echoed those concerns, but took a harder line.

“If we don’t tackle our nation’s budget challenges head on, then we’ll continue to see our entitlement programs barrel toward insolvency,” Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, said. “This issue requires presidential leadership and bipartisan action, and today’s report should prompt those in Washington to act sooner rather than later.”

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