National panel explores

David Hyland

The precarious future of Medicare brought two U.S. Senators and four congressmen to a public forum at the Minneapolis Convention Center on Monday.
The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare, a congressional committee, held the meeting to gather information and suggestions from Minnesota health care experts and the public about ways to reform Medicare.
Medicare is a federal health program that insures senior citizens and other groups such as people with disabilities. It is the largest health insurer in the country.
The forum, hosted by the National Institute of Health Policy, a joint venture between the University and the University of St. Thomas, was intended to incur information from private health care services which could possibly be incorporated into Medicare.
More than 500 people packed the forum to hear or offer opinions on how to reshape Medicare.
The commission was created by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 to investigate ways to improve Medicare for the future.
Currently, 40 million Americans rely on Medicare. Because of the Balanced Budget act, Medicare will be financially solvent for the next 10 years.
But a crisis looms on the horizon.
In what commission co-chairmain Sen. John Breaux, D-La., dubbed a “demographic tidal wave,” the majority of the population will reach retirement age in the next decade. By 2010, the baby boomer generation will become eligible for Medicare.
In the coming decade, an estimated 77 million baby boomers will seek Medicare services. As a result, Medicare’s costs are expected to skyrocket from $207 billion last year to between $2 trillion and $3 trillion by 2030.
“By 2008, Medicare will be absolvent,” said Breaux. “This is two years before the first baby boomers retire. We must do something to address the addition of 77 million baby boomers to the Medicare program.”
At the same time, the ratio of workers to retirees will drop dramatically. Because Medicare is financed through taxes, current workers pay for current beneficiaries.
By 2030, the ratio will fall to 2.2 workers for every one retiree, Breaux said. Some estimates list the current ratio of workers to retirees at five to one.
Katie White, associate health policy fellow at the University of St. Thomas, said young people should care about Medicare’s future because they will not only pay for it, but should count on using it when they retire.
The forum also addressed questions of providing health care for the growing uninsured population, the escalating costs for companies providing health care to employees and the possibility of reducing costs while improving quality.
Commission co-chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., said the committee chose to organize the forum in the Twin Cities area for a reason.
“In a relatively small geographic area, we had the opportunity … to examine what Minnesota was doing,” Thomas said.
The forum hosted three panel discussions throughout the afternoon and concluded with an “ideas and recommendations” colloquium in which audience members expressed their opinions.
The panel discussions focused on testimony about the varying aspects of health care. Each panel featured different speakers: representatives of private employers such as 3M, health care providers such as Blue Cross and Blue Shield and spokespersons from senior citizens groups.
“(The commission is) trying to learn about what examples and what models are out there that may be relevant to utilize for Medicare beneficiaries across the country,” White said. “They’re looking for those gems of knowledge.”
Of the 17 commission members, only nine attended the meeting. Though meeting organizers said this was expected, such prominent committee members as Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas and Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W. Va., were absent.
White was pleased with the forum’s results and the institute’s performance in helping the commission.
“Our role in the institute as the sponsor was to be the conduit for the commission. It’s their agenda and their opportunity to come into the field,” White said.
The commission will continue to tour the country, but is expected to submit a report to Congress and the Clinton administration by March 1999.