Health costs, retirement will bust budget, panel says

Published May 31, 2007

TAMPA - Harping about balanced budgets, third-party candidate Ross Perot captured 19 percent of the 1992 presidential vote and the attention of winner Bill Clinton. The Clinton presidency took an unexpected tack toward fiscal conservatism.

Now, America's chief accountant and an eclectic group of think-tankers are trying to emulate Perot. Calling themselves the "Fiscal Wakeup Tour, " they are criss-crossing early primary states to sound alarms about rising health care costs and retiring baby boomers.

If nothing changes over the next four decades, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare will consume about 20 percent of the nation's economy - equivalent to what the entire federal budget takes up today, Comptroller General David M. Walker told a forum Wednesday at the University of South Florida.

Unfunded liabilities for the three programs over the next 75 years amount to $50-trillion, he said.

"If we don't get our act together, my generation will be the first generation in our nation's history not to discharge our stewardship to the next generation, " Walker said.

Joining Walker were Robert Bixby of the Concord Coalition, Alison Fraser of the Heritage Foundation and Jason Furman of the Brookings Institution.

When pressed for specifics, they disagreed on solutions. Fraser, for example, thought Congress should extend Bush administration tax cuts, saying they stimulate the economy.

Furman said the cuts deepened the federal debt, which will inexorably sap the economy.

They all agreed that putting Social Security on sound footing will be easier than reducing Medicare's long-run costs.

Walker threw out possible Social Security changes: pushing back the retirement age; skewing benefits toward lower-income people; raising the cap on taxable wages; and imposing an extra 2 percent tax to fund private, individual accounts.

Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, who invited the tour to USF, joked that his recent lead role in contentious immigration reform makes entitlement issues seem less imposing.

"People say Social Security is the third rail of politics, don't touch it, " Martinez said. "The fact is, we have no choice but to touch it. If politicians keep punting the ball down the field so our children will have to deal with it, we have not done our duty."

John Rother, policy director for the AARP, applauded the group for highlighting fiscal problems. But he cautioned against focusing too much on the federal budget and not enough on restraining health care costs.

The government should use its buying power to lower prices and focus more on wellness, he said in a telephone interview.

"We are not getting good value for health care dollars compared to other countries."