New Spending Estimates Underscore Need for Reform

GAO-01-1010T: Published: Jul 25, 2001. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2001.

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Although the short-term outlook of Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund improved in the last year, Medicare's long-term prospects have worsened. The Medicare Trustee's latest projections, released in March, use more realistic assumptions about health care spending in the years ahead. These latest projections call into question the program's long-term financial health. The Congressional Budget Office also increased its long-term estimates of Medicare spending. The slowdown in Medicare spending growth in recent years appears to have ended. In the first eight months of fiscal year 2001, Medicare spending was 7.5 percent higher than a year earlier. This testimony discusses several fundamental challenges to Medicare reform. Without meaningful entitlement reform, GAO's long-term budget simulations show that an aging population and rising health care spending will eventually drive the country back into deficit and debt. The addition of a prescription drug benefits would boost spending projections even further. Properly structured reform to promote competition among health plans could make Medicare beneficiaries more cost conscious. The continued importance of traditional Medicare underscores the need to base adjustments to provider payments on hard evidence rather than on anecdotal information. Similarly, reforms in the management of the Medicare program should ensure that adequate resources accompany increased expectations about performance and accountability. Ultimately, broader health care reforms will be needed to balance health care spending with other societal priorities.

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