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How Washington Solved the "Medicare Problem"
by Frank Kaiser
Let's give this Administration credit. It's "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" They let nothing stand in their way.

Having inherited a $236 billion budget surplus in 2001, the Administration gave the wealthiest Americans a trillion dollars in "tax relief." Why? "To keep jobs healthy and the economy strong."

Three huge tax cuts later, with 3 million private-sector jobs lost and a $521 billion estimated budget deficit for 2004 (not including our costs for rebuilding Iraq), this Administration insists that we must continue cutting taxes for the rich "to keep jobs healthy and the economy strong."

That's perseverance, something we Americans admire.
F
rom Day One, luminaries such as Alan Greenspan joined this Administration claiming that Social Security and Medicare were doomed for failure. "Privatize them! Put your trust in the stock market."

But many Americans remained skeptical, especially after popular stocks like Enron fell from $90 to 57¢ a share. We asked, "Why fix what ain't broke?"

So this White House did what it does best. It created fear, then invited us in under its cozy umbrella of protection.

After 9-11, most of us accepted that we needed a stern and unswerving father figure.

If our safety depended on our accepting a little less liberty, a bit of Constitutional bending, a war without end, and a society encouraged to fear minorities, ignore the poor, and idolize the rich, so be it.

It came as no surprise on Tuesday when Treasury Secretary John Snow pushed the now well-worn White House fear button announcing that Medicare's financial condition has "deteriorated sharply." The hospital trust fund will be broke seven years earlier than previously forecast.

With those job losses and the lower wages of most of the rest of us, payroll taxes took a dive.

Snow's report stated that over the next 75 years — this guy's foresight is phenomenal — Medicare will have an unfunded liability of $27.7 trillion*.

Staggering! Where's that umbrella?

Poof! No Medicare Problem.

Lucky for us, the Bush Administration is steady at the helm. Father knows best. The Medicare bill the president signed last December will privatize the program, put the HMOs in charge, thus encouraging personal savings, always a good thing.

Without Medicare, there's no Medicare problem. It's sheer genius. And HMOs will negotiate prices with the drug companies, something the Republicans made illegal to Medicare administrators.

Still, I have some nagging doubts.

Forgive me, but how is it possible, I wonder, for HMOs to be more efficient than Medicare with our medical dollars when HMOs spend between 15 to 32 cents of every dollar on overhead while Medicare spends but a penny?

Medicare must have some real losers working for it! I suppose that's why the Republicans wouldn't allow the agency to negotiate drug prices. Dummies like that might negotiate up instead of down.

I'm also curious about when the HMOs will turn benign? Every HMO I've been with has either raised its premiums so high I couldn't afford them anymore, or, under Medicare, they've simply kicked me out in the cold.

WellCare, UnitedHealthcare, Humana — I've been booted from them all. Forgive my nagging doubts now that they ask me again to put my health in their hands, their pockets full of newly minted Medicare dollars.

I know that it's unpatriotic to question Washington's leadership.

But you've got to ask: With wages skidding, job losses mounting, deficits climbing, and no Medicare or Social Security, what will this great country be like when our children reach our age?

What kind of umbrella will they have to keep those torpedoes away?


* Do you know what a trillion dollars is? Don't worry. No one does. No human being has ever been able to count that high. Just figure that it's a lie and move on to something we all can understand, like $24,000 — yours, mine, and every newborn American child's portion of today's national debt.

Copyright © 2004 —Frank Kaiser


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Read last week's column

MEDICARE'S DISCOUNT CARDS
DEALT FROM BOTTOM OF DECK

Finally, the truth about the much touted Medicare Discount Drug Cards. Could Congress even make a bill that more thoroughly screws seniors while it further enriches drug companies and HMOs? CLICK HERE FOR FULL STORY

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