Should Medicare limit the amount of money spent on each retiree's health care as the baby boomers age? Some experts advising a new federal commission on Medicare think so.
"You ought to worry about what the government is willing to pay per person," Gail Wilensky, a former Medicare administrator told the commission Tuesday.The panel of lawmakers and private sector experts must, by March 1, come up with a suggestions that Congress and the president can use to keep Medicare from being swamped by 77 million aging baby boomers. Without change, the program will run short of cash by 2010.
Wilensky is part of a separate, privately financed study group on Medicare organized by the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance. The group has recommended an experiment to show whether Medicare could operate more like companies that give their workers a choice of health plans:
The government would ask private health plans to make their best offer, then Medicare would pay part of the price - up to the limit public coffers could afford. The rest would be charged to senior citizens as a premium.
The result for retirees would be a choice among plans of varying kinds and out-of-pocket costs. All would at least provide basic benefits, but "if people want to do a more expensive type of plan, then they pay more," Wilensky said.
Another consequence for senior citizens, however, could be less health care coverage, according to Karen Davis, president of The Com-mon-wealth Fund, a philanthropic organization that studies health policy.
"I think you would get an increase in the financial burden on beneficiaries," Davis told Medicare commissioners. "You could also push low-income beneficiaries into lower quality care."
The commission also heard Tuesday from a retiree and young working people who revealed generational disagreements over Medicare.
Proposals to save money by charging wealthier senior citizens more for coverage irked Tess Canja, vice president of the American Association of Retired Per-sons.
"People who have paid into the system are entitled to get something out of it," said Canja, 70.
But younger people supported the idea.
"Why should hotel workers who change bed linens be subsidizing Leona Helmsley's Medicare?" asked Meredith Bagby, 24, a CNN Financial Network correspondent.
Bagby represented Third Millennium, a group that opposes payroll tax increases to save Medicare. Instead, the organization advocates providing benefits only to those in need, plus incentives to encourage self-reliance such as tax-exempt medical savings accounts.