Republicans and Democrats may use a hearing this week on the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund to sharpen their healthcare messages for the fall congressional campaigns.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hear testimony this week on the status of the trust fund in the wake of published reports earlier this month that the trust fund lost money last year for the first time since 1972, two years earlier than Medicare's trustees projected.
The hearing likely will breathe new life into GOP arguments on the need for Medicare reforms and Democratic accusations that Republicans want to destroy the program to balance the federal budget and pay for tax cuts, providing a preview of members' re-election campaign rhetoric.
The Democratic National Committee already is running advertisements in the South, Midwest and West that feature an excerpt from President Clinton's State of the Union address. In the excerpt, Clinton expresses his desire to reach a balanced-budget compromise that will not reduce Medicare spending growth as much as Republicans have proposed.
Republicans are expected to use the newspaper report to refocus on the need to restrain Medicare spending growth, as they proposed in balanced-budget legislation, to make sure that the trust fund stays solvent.
They also are expected to accuse the Clinton administration of hiding the trust fund data. Republicans argue that earlier release of the data could have changed the course of balanced-budget negotiations during the autumn and winter.
"(Republicans) are just looking for enough front-page press to reinforce in the hearts and minds of the American people that Medicare's in trouble," said James Scott, president of the AmHS/Premier/SunHealth Institute.
Democrats, likewise, are expected to respond that Republicans went too far in trying to restrain Medicare spending growth in their balanced-budget legislation last year. The balanced-budget legislation originally called for $270 billion in savings over seven years when compared with current law, although GOP leaders now are prepared to accept $168 billion.
"The Democrats are making hay that Republicans want to gut Medicare," said Brent Miller, government relations director for the American Group Practice Association. "The Republicans feel comfortable talking about the budget. The Democrats feel comfortable talking about the health security of the nation."
The hearing also may provide a short-term political boost to efforts to include a Medicare reform measure in legislation to increase the federal government's borrowing authority, which also faces a vote this week, or to another interim spending bill that must be approved by mid-March.