- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

President Bush’s $36 billion in proposed savings for Medicare in his 2007 budget is being met with skepticism on Capitol Hill, and even supporters of the idea say it will be tough to find the congressional appetite to in an election year.

“There probably isn’t an appetite, but there should be, because that program can be run so much more efficiently,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican and member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which yesterday held a hearing on the health care portions of the 2007 budget.

“It’s a hard sell, for sure,” said Rep. Jim Ramstad of Minnesota, a Ways and Means member and a more centrist Republican, who hasn’t made up his mind on the Medicare savings yet. “I want to see how it affects patients back home.”

Mr. Brady said Mr. Bush’s ideas are good and should be pursued, because there is ample room to cut waste and fraud out of the massive program, but he also conceded that some members are “jumpy” that they will be “demagogued” by critics.

Mr. Bush’s $2.77 trillion budget proposal calls for $65 billion in entitlement savings, including the $36 billion from Medicare. This proposal comes on the heels of a massive budget-savings measure that barely made it through Congress a few weeks ago.

That bill, which Mr. Bush signed yesterday, collects $40 billion in savings from entitlement programs, including Medicare, and has been blasted by critics as cruel cuts to programs for working Americans.

Republicans say they aren’t cuts, but rather a slowing of the out-of-control growth rate of entitlement programs.

Mr. Bush pushed his budget in a New Hampshire speech yesterday.

“The best way to reduce the deficit is to make sure we have pro-growth economic policies in place and be smart and wise about how we spend your money,” he said.

He said the proposed $36 billion in Medicare savings would simply slow Medicare’s growth rate from 8.1 percent to 7.7 percent.

“That doesn’t seem too unreasonable to me,” he said.

“The appetite is not going to be strong for those cuts,” said Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “My guess is that a lot of those Medicare cuts are going to be restored.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt testified yesterday told the House Ways and Means Committee that the proposed Medicare changes would be “steps to improve the long-term fiscal health of Medicare.”

The bulk of the Medicare savings would come from reducing some payment reimbursement rates for Medicare providers.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said the changes “support our commitment to ensure that providers are paid accurately to secure the best deal for taxpayers and seniors.”

But panel member Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat, complained that the administration ignored other key areas of possible Medicare savings, like getting rid of a federal “slush fund” for insurance companies.

And Rep. Jim McDermott, the Washington Democrat who is also on the committee, said that although Mr. Bush contends he is making health care a priority, he is “whacking away at those programs.”

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