Why do we need to improve Medicare?

Medicare at 50 — Origins and Evolution

By David Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.P., Karen Davis, Ph.D., and Stuart Guterman, M.A.
The New England Journal of Medicine, January 14, 2015

Many Americans have never known a world without Medicare. For 50 years, it has been a reliable guarantor of the health and welfare of older and disabled Americans by paying their medical bills, ensuring their access to needed health care services, and protecting them from potentially crushing health expenses. However, as popular as Medicare has become, Congress created the program only after a long and deeply ideological struggle that still reverberates in continuing debates about its future.

Future Challenges

Medicare is a much larger, more comprehensive, and more complex program than it was in 1965. In its response to cost and quality concerns, it has also become much more assertive in trying to improve the performance of the national health care system. For much of its history, Medicare just paid bills. Now, it has joined private-sector insurers in the effort to manage care as well.

Despite these changes, however, Medicare continues to face major challenges, which will be discussed in more detail in part two of this series. Perhaps the most important of these challenges is its cost. Growth in Medicare spending per beneficiary has slowed sharply in recent years, and although that slowdown is projected to continue over the next few years, the growth in total program spending is projected to outpace that in the overall economy as the retiring baby-boom generation increases the number of beneficiaries. This will put more pressure not only on Medicare finances but also on the federal budget, with Medicare spending projected to rise as a share of federal revenues from 17% in 2014 to 27% in 2050 and to approach 40% by the end of the century.

The current structure of Medicare is anachronistic and unnecessarily complex. Most employers offer their employees a comprehensive benefit package that includes hospital care, physician services, and prescription drugs. Medicare, in contrast, offers its beneficiaries fragmented coverage, with separate parts for each of these services. As a result of its substantial deductibles and the lack of a ceiling on out-of-pocket costs, most beneficiaries purchase supplemental private insurance to cover gaps in Medicare. Low-income beneficiaries, unable to afford care provided through substantial cost sharing in Medicare, can enroll in Medicaid to obtain help in paying Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs, but each state has its own income and asset rules. As a result, the complexity of the current insurance system for the elderly becomes truly startling. This complexity frustrates efforts to coordinate care for the sickest and frailest patients and to create an understandable and consistent set of incentives for providers.

Despite the importance of Medicare in improving its beneficiaries' access to care, the program does have substantial limitations in coverage. These limitations result in large out-of-pocket payments for the most vulnerable beneficiaries. Although Medicare covers some rehabilitation services and limited home care, it does not pay for extended long-term services and supports, a gap that surprises many elderly persons and their families when they need such care. Medicaid does cover these benefits but only for the poorest elderly. The role of Medicare in addressing growing societal needs for long-term services remains uncertain.

These and other issues suggest that preserving and strengthening Medicare over the next 50 years will continue to require active, wise, and humane policy development. Such a task would be a challenge for the federal government under any circumstances but particularly if the current intense partisan divisions persist.



By Don McCanne, MD

Although Medicare is the most popular health insurance program in the nation, it still has some serious deficiencies. As an example, 27 percent of Medicare beneficiaries spend more than 20 percent of their income for out-of-pocket health care expenses.

There are two pressing reasons why efforts should be made to strengthen Medicare. The most obvious is that current Medicare beneficiaries should have at least the level of financial security and health security that citizens of other nations receive through their health care financing systems.

The other reason is that Medicare is thought by many to be a natural model for a national health program that covers everyone. It is important that the model be improved so that we can do away with wasteful and inefficient supplementary programs such as Medigap coverage, retiree health benefits, Medicare Advantage plans, and Part D drug plans, and, while we are at it, eliminate the financial barriers of cost sharing that impair access to care. Once we have an improved Medicare we can combine it with the other important features of a single payer national health program, finally realizing our dream of an expanded and improved Medicare for all.

For those who wish to be reminded of the key features of single payer that should be combined with an improved Medicare, a brief list is at this link: