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Fresh warnings issued on Social Security, Medicare programs

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 4:18 a.m. MDT

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, center, accompanied by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, right, and  Acting Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris, speaks about Social Security and Medicare , Friday, May 31, 213, at the Treasury Department in Washington. The government says Medicare's giant hospital trust will not be exhausted until 2026, while the date that Social Security will exhaust its trust fund is unchanged at 2033. The date for Medicare is two years later than was projected last year.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press) Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, center, accompanied by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, right, and Acting Labor Secretary Seth D. Harris, speaks about Social Security and Medicare , Friday, May 31, 213, at the Treasury Department in Washington. The government says Medicare's giant hospital trust will not be exhausted until 2026, while the date that Social Security will exhaust its trust fund is unchanged at 2033. The date for Medicare is two years later than was projected last year. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — Medicare's long-term health is starting to look a little better, the government said Friday, but both Social Security and Medicare are still wobbling toward insolvency within two decades if Congress and the president don't find a way to shore up the trust funds established to take care of older Americans.

Medicare's giant fund for inpatient care will be exhausted in 2026, two years later than estimated last year, while Social Security's projected insolvency in 2033 remains unchanged, the government reported.

An overall slowdown in health care spending is helping Medicare. Spending cuts in President Barack Obama's health care law are also having a positive impact on the balance sheet, but they may prove politically unsustainable.

The relatively good news about two programs that provide a foundation of economic security for nearly every American family is a respite, not a free pass. Program trustees urged lawmakers anew to seize an opportunity and make long-term changes to improve finances. Action now would be far less jarring than having to hit the brakes at the edge of a fiscal cliff.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew listens at left as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks about Social Security and Medicare, Friday, May 31, 2013, at the Treasury Department in Washington. The government says Medicare's giant hospital trust will not be exhausted until 2026, while the date that Social Security will exhaust its trust fund is unchanged at 2033.  The date for Medicare is two years later than was projected last year.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press) Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew listens at left as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks about Social Security and Medicare, Friday, May 31, 2013, at the Treasury Department in Washington. The government says Medicare's giant hospital trust will not be exhausted until 2026, while the date that Social Security will exhaust its trust fund is unchanged at 2033. The date for Medicare is two years later than was projected last year. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

Politically, however, Friday's positive report and the absence of a crisis could make legislative action less likely, especially in light of the lack of trust between President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress. No end is in sight for the partisan standoff over what to do about Social Security and Medicare, two of the government's costliest programs.

Still, fresh warnings were sounded.

"Under current law, both of these vitally important programs are on unsustainable paths," said economist Robert D. Reischauer, one of two independent public trustees overseeing the annual reports.

The window for action "is in the process of closing even as we speak," said his counterpart, Charles Blahous III, also a prominent economist.

Social Security provides monthly benefit checks to about 57 million people, including 40 million retirees and their dependents, 11 million disabled workers and dependents and 6 million survivors of deceased workers.

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