Democrats and Republicans took the occasion of last week's 30th anniversary of Medicare to take partisan snipes at each other over the program's future.
At a Democratic rally to mark the anniversary, President Clinton said Republicans were trying to "balance the budget by cutting Medicare for older Americans."
But Republicans answered that the president was playing politics.
"Nobody wants to mess with Medicare," said House Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Thomas Bliley (R-Va.). "The question is whether we'll have the courage to save it."
Florida Rep. Sam Gibbons, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, accused Republicans of having a "stealth plan that they're going to keep out of radar range as long as possible so nobody can shoot at it."
But Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour countered that Medicare was "too important to do like the Clintons did with some secret healthcare task force."
Frederick Graefe, a healthcare lobbyist with Baker & Hostetler in Washington, said both parties were using the Medicare anniversary "for political posturing. In September, all this is not going to make any difference."
The unveiling of the Republican Medicare reform plan is expected during the week of Sept. 11, a GOP House staffer said last week.
According to a leaked draft, the Republican plan will give beneficiaries a menu of choices, including traditional fee-for-service, a number of managed-care plans and a medical savings account option (July 24, p. 3). Senior citizens may also be able to remain in their employer's plan after retirement.
Medicare would pay a predetermined amount toward the cost of the plan chosen. If the total cost of the plan is more than the Medicare voucher, the beneficiary would be responsible to pay the difference; if the cost is less, the beneficiary would receive some of the savings in cash.
The GOP plan aims to save $270 billion from projected Medicare spending over the next seven years by lowering the growth rate of Medicare to about 6% per year. According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, Medicare spending is expected to rise by more than 10% per year in the next seven years, from $175 billion this year to more than $325 billion by 2002.
The GOP did get some good news in its quest for Medicare savings from Paul Ellwood, M.D., president of the Jackson Hole Group, a healthcare think tank that includes a number of provider and business members.
Ellwood told the Senate Finance Committee last week that $272 billion could be saved over seven years-$2 billion more than the GOP budget called for-if Congress passed a plan similar to the one being considered by House Republicans and allowed the amount of the Medicare voucher to be set through strict market negotiation.