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Clinton's Medicare Plan Called Irresponsible

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 1999; Page A14

President Clinton's proposal to spend $700 billion of the expected budget surpluses to help rescue Medicare is irresponsible, postponing when the program would go broke without fixing its underlying problems, the General Accounting Office and Congressional Budget Office said yesterday. At an acrimonious hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, the leaders of both agencies said it would make more sense to focus on fundamental changes to the nation's health insurance program for the elderly, so that it would need less money or is given a permanent new source of financial help. Those difficult changes might include lowering benefits, raising taxes or making people wait longer before they become eligible to sign up.

"The president's proposal could induce a sense of false complacency," Comptroller General David M. Walker, who leads the GAO, said in testimony prepared for the hearing. He said the White House plan would improve the "paper solvency" of the Medicare fund that pays hospital bills "without reforms to make the underlying program more sustainable."

The critiques came as Jacob "Jack" Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, touted the proposal that Clinton introduced two months ago. The White House is urging Congress to reserve 15 percent of projected budget surpluses over the next several years to forestall the impending time when Medicare, which helps 39 million elderly and disabled Americans, will become unable to pay all its bills.

According to administration forecasts, those surplus funds would keep the program's hospital trust fund solvent until 2020, roughly a decade later than when it currently is expected to go broke. But the idea has infuriated congressional Republicans, who would prefer to use that money for a tax cut.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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