- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt yesterday warned of a looming political conflict that threatens to divide the country over the mounting costs of Medicare paid by younger taxpayers for a growing number of senior citizens.

The former three-term Utah governor, who has been the administration’s point man on health care reform in recent years, Mr. Leavitt has avoided stepping into this election year’s battles. But yesterday, he partially waded into the politics of Medicare, whose costs he said are a ticking time bomb that will heap huge financial burdens on future generations.

“The kind of division I worry about is when we begin to see one generation pitted against another or when you begin to see economic classes pitted against each other. Those are the kinds of divisions that have classically divided and undermined nations,” he said in an interview with The Washington Times.

“I suspect that’s one of the things that worries me most about the Medicare situation, which is that it is destined to divide our nation along generational lines. Right now, there are four earners for every Medicare beneficiary. I think it’s in 2028 when there are only two,” he said.

“And I’m not sure how my children in their generation are going to feel about paying the health care of a 77-year-old Mike Leavitt,” he said.

With 44 million Americans under Medicare, tens of millions of baby boomers poised to sign up for it and health costs spiraling higher, it quickly becomes apparent that its costs “will price an emerging generation out of the capacity to do all the things we take for granted. And the reason is because they will be paying for our health care,” he said.

Mr. Leavitt, who presides over the nation’s $400 billion health care program, talked candidly about who will pay Medicare’s mounting bills in personal terms as well.

“My father, even today who is quite successful and still earns a fair amount of money, he gets unlimited health care that the taxpayers pay for. I have two sons who are just buying homes, are just starting families and are struggling to do all of that. They are paying taxes to support my father who makes a lot more money than either one of them. They are paying taxes to support his unlimited health care. That’s hard for me to justify,” he said.

“If you go out 15 years and you say who is going to have to solve this, it’s going to be a generation that is trying to buy homes and raise families and do all of the things right now that we take for granted. But they’re the ones that will be carrying the burden of the problem we’re talking about, and that is the kind of problem that to me is worrisome. That’s when it becomes irregular, when it’s dividing one generation against another,” he added.

“And I’ve had this conversation with my sons, and of course at their age, they say, ‘Well, we ought to reduce the benefits. They don’t need unlimited care. They ought to be sharing part of the burden,’ ” he continued.

“But if you are 65, what you say is, ‘Well, look, I paid for it. I did my time, now they need to do theirs.’ So you’ve got this generational conflict happening because they see the world from such a different perspective. And again that’s the kind of thing that divides the country,” he said.

Mr. Leavitt, now in his third year as HHS secretary, said Medicare’s mounting costs must be addressed by future leaders.

“We’ll get through the conflict of today, because they might divide us ideologically but they don’t divide us generationally.”

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