This week, the Medicare Trustees released a report that warns of a serious funding shortfall in the Medicare program, which provides health insurance to more than 50 million people who are ages 65 and over or who are disabled. Absent reforms, the Trustees project that:
The Trustees urge lawmakers to enact legislation soon to put Medicare on a sustainable path:
"Notwithstanding recent favorable developments, current-law projections indicate that Medicare still faces a substantial financial shortfall that will need to be addressed with further legislation. Such legislation should be enacted sooner rather than later to minimize the impact on beneficiaries, providers, and taxpayers."
MEDICARE SPENDING IS PROJECTED TO CLIMB SIGNIFICANTLY
According to the Trustees, Medicare spending remains on a significant upward trajectory. The Trustees project that Medicare spending will climb significantly as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the decades ahead — rising from 3.5 percent of GDP in 2015 to 5.6 percent of GDP in 2040. This is an increase of 60 percent over the next 25 years.
As a result of these increases, Medicare will also take up a larger and larger share of the federal budget. In 1970, Medicare expenditures accounted for just 3 percent of total federal spending. Today, Medicare accounts for 15 percent of the budget, and by 2040, it is projected to grow to 20 percent of the budget.
WHAT IS DRIVING MEDICARE'S GROWING PROJECTED COSTS?
Projected Medicare spending growth is driven primarily by two factors: growing numbers of beneficiaries due to the aging of the population, and rising healthcare costs per beneficiary.
The aging of the population is a major factor driving Medicare spending over the next 25 years. As the baby boom generation of 76 million people turns 65, they become eligible to enroll in the program. In 1990, there were 31 million people ages 65 and older; today, there are 48 million; within 25 years, there will be 82 million.
In addition, Americans have been living longer, which increases the length of time that beneficiaries are served by the program. In 1970, the average 65-year-old male was expected to live until age 79; today, he is expected to live until 84; within 25 years, he is expected to live until 86. The comparable life expectancies for women are 84 in 1970, 87 today, and 88 in 2040. This welcome trend is expected to continue, but it means Medicare recipients will receive benefits for more years than they have in the past. In addition, medical costs are typically greater for those individuals that reach higher ages, further driving increases in costs.
In addition to these demographic factors, the cost of healthcare for each Medicare beneficiary is growing. Healthcare costs per beneficiary have been growing for more than four decades, and the average cost per Medicare beneficiary (after adjusting for overall inflation) has tripled over the last thirty years. The annual cost is now about $12,500 per beneficiary.
Recently, the growth rate of the costs per beneficiary has slowed, which is welcome news. However, the causes of that slowdown are unclear, and it’s not certain whether the slower growth rate will continue. For example, some portion of the slower growth may have been due to the weak economy in recent years. Furthermore, the large projected increases in the number of beneficiaries will drive significant spending growth, regardless of the growth rate of costs per beneficiary. Even after accounting for the recent slowdown in the growth of costs per beneficiary, the Trustees project large and unsustainable growth in Medicare spending.
MEDICARE FINANCING PUTS PRESSURE ON THE FEDERAL BUDGET
As Medicare spending has risen, the revenue sources that are dedicated to fund the expenditures — payroll taxes and premiums — are covering less and less of the actual costs. In 1970, Medicare payroll taxes and premiums were able to fund 75 percent of the program, with the balance coming from transfers from the general fund of the Federal government. Today, it’s only 56%, and within 35 years the Trustees project that only half of the Medicare program will be self-financed. These shortfalls put significantly more pressure on the rest of the federal budget.
As a result of the growing imbalances between Medicare spending and its dedicated sources of revenue, the Trustees project the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund will be fully exhausted by 2030. The HI program finances in-patient hospital care, skilled nursing, home health, and hospice care, and almost all Americans ages 65 and older are eligible. Medicare has the legal authority to spend any accumulated balances in the HI Trust Fund, plus any incoming taxes and premiums, on benefits. However, once the HI Trust Fund balance reaches zero, spending on benefits cannot exceed incoming revenues and premiums. Unless policymakers act, the Trustees estimate that in 2030 the Medicare program will be unable to pay 15 percent of its HI bills.
Medicare’s budgetary challenges go beyond hospital insurance. The Trustees also project rising spending on physicians, prescription drugs, and other healthcare services, which are programs funded by beneficiary premiums and general revenues. The trust fund for these programs cannot technically run out of money under current law because general revenue contributions must automatically cover any shortfalls in annual funding. However, the rising costs for these other health expenditures put pressure on the rest of the federal budget, constrain funds that could be used for other programs, and ultimately lead to higher levels of federal debt and interest costs.
MEDICARE COSTS COULD BE HIGHER UNDER A LESS OPTIMISTIC SCENARIO
The Trustees provide two projections reflecting different policy assumptions: a current-law projection and an alternative projection. The current-law projection assumes that certain cost-control provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act (MACRA) will remain in place and be effective. The Trustees prepared an alternative scenario which assumes that these cost-cutting measures will be ineffective or will not be implemented. In that scenario, the Trustees project that spending could rise to 6.1 percent of GDP in 2040 — 73 percent above today’s levels and 10 percent higher than the level projected under the current-law projections.
Medicare is facing a long period of rapidly growing spending due to the retirement of the baby boomers and increases in longevity, as well as continued growth in healthcare costs per beneficiary. The Trustees call on Congress and the administration to act "with a sense of urgency" to address the growth in expenditures and the exhaustion of the HI Trust Fund. If done promptly, policy changes can be phased in gradually, minimizing the impact on beneficiaries. However, if Congress and the administration continue to delay needed reforms, Medicare enrollees could see more significant and sudden changes to the benefits that they rely on. Policymakers should work together to stabilize and strengthen this important program for generations to come.