Outlook Worsening for Social Security, Medicare, Trustees Say

If you're 58 or older and plan to live to the average American life expectancy of 83 years, then you're in good shape.

But if you're planning to live past the year 2036, don't count on Social Security.

And if you're relying on Medicare, don't even think about the math.

That's the picture laid out in a new report released Friday by Social Security and Medicare trustees, who say the bad economy has shortened the life span of the trust funds for the nation's two biggest benefit programs, even as Americans' life spans are getting longer.

Currently, 46 million American seniors use Medicare. For those depending on the medical insurance plan, the hospital fund exhaustion deadline is now set at 2024, five year's earlier than last year's estimate.

The report says the Social Security trust fund that now helps 55 million retirees, disabled people and children who have lost parents will be exhausted in 2036, one year earlier than before.

The trustees predicted that Social Security recipients, who now average $1,077.22 in monthly payments, will receive a 0.7 cost of living bump in 2012 even while noting that the cost of funding the program will jump dramatically in the next 24 years.

"We're going to have substantial continuing cost growth in the Social Security program to the point where by the mid 2030s costs will be roughly 50 percent larger, nearly -- relative to the size of the economy," said trustee Charles Blahous, a Hoover Institution fellow. "At the point of trust fund exhaustion in Social Security, we would be looking at either a 23 percent benefit reduction for an increase in the payroll tax rate to 16.4 percent."

The trustees said that they moved up the target date for the Medicare hospital trust fund because health care costs continue to rise while fewer people are working and paying Medicare premiums into the fund.

Last year's report had extended the life of the Medicare fund by 12 years -- to 2029 -- to reflect the savings they say would be found in the massive overhaul of health care that President Obama got Congress to pass in 2010.

"The Obama administration has already taken steps to strengthen and extend the solvency of Medicare, implementing policies including those in the Affordable Care Act that will save nearly $120 billion for Medicare over the next five years," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, another trustee.

The projections associated with the new law are still included in the trustees' calculations, but payroll taxes have fallen dramatically enough to reduce the life span.

The deficit in the Medicare trust fund is no surprise to Democrats and Republicans, who are sparring on how to reform the system to extend its lifetime. They argue that the annual "doctor fix" associated with rising medical care costs removes projected savings each year. Other cost cuts have been difficult to realize.

House Republicans have passed a plan introduced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that would replace Medicare with a voucher-like payment system for future retirees. Paul said Friday that the program would prevent a raid on Medicare trust fund "ensuring that Medicare savings go toward saving Medicare, not creating a brand new entitlement."

"Rather than allow opponents of reform to allow Medicare to collapse, the House-passed budget saves Medicare, making no changes for those 55 and older and offering future generations a strengthened, personalized Medicare program they can count on," Paul said.

Sebelius said the proposal goes the wrong way.

"Some in Congress want to take us backwards and have proposed a plan that would end Medicare as we know it and shift costs to seniors and the most vulnerable. That's the wrong way to reform Medicare," Sebelius said.

But Republicans who have been urging Congress to act on the plan submitted by Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, said Friday that the new projections are a wake-up call to take action.

"Washington has no excuse. We have known for years this was coming," Senate Budget Committee ranking Republican Jeff Sessions said in a written statement. "House Republicans have passed an honest, serious plan to confront our nation’s long-term challenges. It has been 744 (days) since this chamber has passed a budget. If Senate Democrats go another year without passing a budget it would be a national scandal."

Even as some Republicans plead for changes to Medicare, Social Security reforms are evidently already off the table. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has insisted that Social Security doesn't have a problem.

After meeting with President Obama on Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that changes to Social Security won't be part of any deal to reduce spending as part of an extension of the debt limit.

Six trustees oversee Social Security and Medicare. They are Sebelius, Blahous, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue and former Congressional Budget Office Director Robert D. Reischauer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.