The Medicare trust fund is projected to run out of money, but Congress can still act

WASHINGTON (GRAY DC) -- It comes out of every American workers’ paycheck, it is the tax for Medicare. It covers hospital care, nursing homes and surgery for the nation’s elderly, but experts say the money is dwindling as more is coming out than going in, and Congress will need to act.

“They paid into the system all their lives. They don’t want to hear that it’s going bankrupt,” said 60 Plus founder Jim Martin.

Martin is one of the over 59 million people enrolled in Medicare, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). He founded 60 Plus over two decades ago to give the elderly another voice in the nation’s capital.

Now at 83-years-old, he still works to educate his fellow seniors on the status of their healthcare.

“There has to be work on both sides of the aisle to fix it. Let’s stop the demagoguery. Seniors deserve better, quite frankly,” said Martin.

The Medicare hospital insurance trust fund is projected to run out of money by 2026, according to a Congressional Budget Office report published in January.

The trust fund helps cover costs for things like inpatient hospital stays, nursing homes and hospice, according to CMS.

“Congress sets the rate, sets the tax rate, and this is what they set. They’re not willing to raise it nor is Congress willing to do anything to control healthcare costs. So, the costs go up, the taxes don’t, and eventually you run out of money,” said Tax Policy Center senior fellow Howard Gleckman.

Gleckman said there are a few options for Congress to take before the trust fund dries up. One, raise taxes on people, two, try and reduce the cost of healthcare and three, borrow the money from somewhere else.

“It’s the classic story of Congress. They put off dealing with difficult situations because this means they are going to have to raise somebody else’s taxes somewhere. They don’t’ want to do that, so they put it off as long as they possibly can,” said Gleckman.

Gleckman said the conversation being had by some Democrats about Medicare buy-in is also in some ways addressing the problem.

“What you’d be doing then is you would actually be improving the financing of Medicare because you’d be taking relatively healthy people and putting them into a risk pool, which is currently older, sicker people,” said Gleckman.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) has proposed allowing people to buy-in to Medicare when they turn 50-years-old. He said this is better than the Medicare for all option touted by other Democrats.

“I think there are lots of people that have insurance that they are more or less satisfied with,” Brown said. “I don’t think you force people to make that choice.”

Over three-fourths of Americans support a Medicare buy-in system for people 50-years-old and older, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in January.

If Martin had his way, he would go for a more market-based approach.

“So many things can go wrong with that concept, but Medicare for all is a recipe for bankruptcy of the system,” said Martin.

Congress has not indicated which route they might choose, but the clock is ticking.

“At some point, probably in five or six years, it’s going to require Congress to act in a very aggressive and probably politically unpopular way,” said Gleckman.