Many Democratic politicians, including President Barack Obama, are sounding a familiar alarm that Republicans aim to “end Medicare as we know it.” Some of them also have been reprising an election-year tradition by accusing GOP opponents of being intent on “destroying Social Security.”
But both of those massive federal entitlement programs — “as we know them” — are doomed without fundamental reforms. Blocking those overdue changes is a sure way to destroy them.
The grim reality was reconfirmed six days ago. Ponder this familiar — and still unheeded — warning: “Lawmakers should not delay addressing the long-run financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare. If they take action sooner rather than later, more options and more time will be available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”
That wasn’t a Republican campaign pitch.
That was an alarm sounded by Social Security trustees as they issued their annual report. They project that the system’s disability fund will run out of money in 2016, with the retirement fund hitting empty in 2035. That means the two funds, combined, are forecast to run dry in 2033 — three years earlier than last year’s belly-up prediction.
The projection for the timing of Medicare’s largest fund falling to zero held steady at 2024. But that’s of limited consolation considering the relentless growth of Medicare beneficiaries, who are expected to hit 80 million by 2030 with Baby Boomer retirements reaching full force.
The math remains basic — and ominous. Over the decades, the ratio of Americans paying into Social Security and Medicare compared to those taking money out of the system has inevitably declined. As the downward course persists, so inevitably does the ability of those increasingly stressed systems to cover their financial obligations.
Some obvious ways to ease that stress — raising eligibility ages and taxes while lowering benefits — are understandably unpopular with voters.
Yet the longer we postpone such decisions, the more difficult they become.
As Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the senior trustee, told reporters when the latest numbers were released: “We must take steps to keep these programs whole for the future.”
But which steps? And when we will take them?
Secretary Geithner, during a revealing congressional hearing in February, told House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., of the nation’s long-term debt challenges, of which entitlements play a large part: “We’re not coming before you to say we have a definitive solution to our long-term problem. What we do know is we don’t like yours.”
President Obama has repeatedly touted his so-called Affordable Care Act as a solution for runaway Medicare costs.
However, a series of revised estimates from the Congressional Budget Office and Government Accountability Office have vindicated this early assessment from “Obamacare” critics: The Medicare “savings” pitch that helped sell the legislation was based on blatantly flawed figures.
The inescapable truth remains that Medicare and Social Security are unsustainable in their current formats. Election-year vows to save them without comprehensive overhauls are promises that no politician can keep.
And the longer elected officials in both parties — and the rest of us — keep putting off the hard calls required to rescue Social Security and Medicare, the tougher that mission will be.