As the election races closed last week, Medicare continued to be a first-line issue, fueled by a federal report detailing a growing Medicare Part A trust fund deficit.
At week's end, control of the House and Senate was still very much in doubt with more than 30 House races and about a dozen Senate seats still considered a toss-up.
Republicans, who have been put on the defensive by Democratic claims that the GOP budget plan passed last year would have destroyed Medicare, cited the deterioration of the Medicare trust fund as proof that the changes they had proposed were necessary.
According to the Treasury Department report, the trust fund spent $127.7 billion but only took in $123.5 billion in revenues in fiscal 1996, creating a nearly $4.2 billion deficit last fiscal year. This is the largest deficit in the trust fund's history. In fiscal 1995, the trust fund ran a $36 million deficit.
Overall, Medicare spent nearly $197 billion in fiscal 1996. While that was an increase from $180 billion in fiscal 1995, it was about $800 million less than the federal government expected. The lower-than-expected outlays occurred in Medicare Part B, which primarily pays physicians.
Democrats, bolstered by the AFL-CIO's continued hammering of GOP candidates, ran their own ads that claimed the GOP "tried to slash Medicare $270 billion." The ads ran primarily in Florida, which was considered a toss-up between President Clinton and GOP challenger Bob Dole.
In an effort to offset the Democratic ads, the Republican National Committee and the Dole campaign began quoting from a pair of letters from the American Association of Retired Persons that noted: "The fact of the matter is both sides have proposed cuts which would slow the rate of growth (in Medicare)."
But the Dole campaign was forced to pull the ads last Wednesday, after complaints from the AARP. The association said the ads failed to note that it also indicated the GOP plan would have had a detrimental effect on quality and would have caused providers to drop Medicare beneficiaries.
It was not the first time an interest group's healthcare analysis became the subject of controversy in the campaign. Clinton warned in the presidential debates that 700 hospitals could close if the Republican budget plans had passed. That landed the American Hospital Association in the middle of a partisan squabble. GOP leaders attacked the claim and AHA officials publicly renounced the president's statements.
The Treasury Department report released last week also found that spending in the Medicaid program was slower than expected. Total federal Medicaid outlays were nearly $92 billion, according to the report, up from $89 billion in 1995 but nearly $3 billion less than budget estimates made last year by the federal government. The slower growth was attributed to states moving more Medicaid beneficiaries into managed-care plans.