Calling All Lawmakers In Congress, It's Time to Get Serious About Saving Medicare

I was working on Capitol Hill when Medicare passed; more than 45 years later, I believe it is time the program be reformed. As this year’s trustees report on the financial health of the program shows, reform is more necessary now more than ever.

It’s common sense: if, year after year, your business spent more than it took in, you’d do something to save it, right? Of course.

Sadly, the federal government doesn’t operate that way. Year after year, Medicare, which provides health coverage to 47 million senior and disabled citizens, spends more than it generates in revenue. Yet, somehow politicians sit idly by, doing nothing while the program inches closer to bankruptcy.

Medicare has long been one of the fastest growing components of the federal budget, and it shows no signs of slowing down. With an aging population growing larger every day due to longer life spans, more seniors are enrolling in the program than ever before. In fact, as the baby boomers reach retirement age, an estimated 10,000 boomers become eligible for Medicare every day.

A decline in the number of workers paying in to support the program poses an additional challenge. In the next 10 years the ratio of workers to beneficiaries is projected to drop from 3.5 to 2.3. With an ever-growing roster of beneficiaries, that means workers can expect to pay a larger proportion of their income to support the program.

But the Medicare Trust Fund will cover the shortfalls, right? Wrong. The Medicare Trust Fund is projected to completely run out of money in the next 13 years, leaving the program completely insolvent by 2024—about the time today’s 50-year-olds are anticipating retirement.

It’s a fiscal train wreck in slow motion. But it doesn’t have to be that way -- Congress can still stop this locomotive from running off the track. As leaders in Washington enter the budgeting process for the coming fiscal year, they should take a careful look at reforming Medicare to strengthen the program for now and for the future. There are common sense reforms that would protect and preserve Medicare for current beneficiaries and those nearing retirement, while strengthening the program for future generations.

Medicare represents an obligation to honor the promise that we have made to workers and seniors that the program will be there for them when they need it. Today’s retirees have paid to support the Medicare system throughout their working lives, and those who are at, or near, retirement deserve to know that the plans they have made for retirement will not be disrupted. Congress should make keeping our promise to beneficiaries of the present and the near future a top priority.

Younger workers have a stake in this debate as well. They, too, pay a significant share of their income to support the Medicare system, and deserve to know that the program will be there to support them when it’s their turn to retire. Reform should serve to strengthen Medicare to ensure its long-term survival.

Seniors regularly tell me they are concerned about the direction of Medicare. They know the program has helped American seniors live in security and dignity, and they want to preserve this achievement.

More important, they want the same for their children and grandchildren. They want future generations to know they can count on health care security when they reach their golden years. Which is why seniors understand the system must change to survive for the future.

Too often, much-needed reforms to Medicare are blocked as a result of political posturing and timidity on the part of policymakers, who worry that “rocking the boat” will cost them at the polls. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has courageously called for reasonable, responsible reforms to protect Medicare for today’s seniors, and to preserve it for tomorrow’s beneficiaries. His Senate counterparts should muster the political courage to follow suit.

Americans understand that unsustainable federal overspending is not only bad business -- it also threatens the integrity of programs that, like Medicare, have come to serve as a foundation of individual financial security for many seniors. The American people are calling for action to maintain that foundation. It’s time for our leaders in Washington to get serious, acknowledge the demographic and economic realities facing the program, and heed that call.

James L "Jim" Martin, age 75, is chairman of 60 Plus Association . He worked on Capitol Hill in 1965 when the Medicare program became law.