Medicare Data Will Delight and Horrify: The Ticker

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By George Anders

One of the best bargains in the U.S. is Medicare, the government-funded health insurance program for the elderly. During a visit yesterday with Bloomberg View, U.S. Representative Jim Cooper argued that citizens would be shocked if they knew how far their Medicare tax dollars go.

By Cooper’s calculations, the average American pays $100,000 in Medicare taxes during his or her working lifetime -- and stands to get $450,000 of medical care in return. If more people knew of this mismatch, the Tennessee Democrat argued, there might be greater urgency about getting Medicare’s finances on a sounder footing. Without any changes, Medicare’s trustees predict, the program’s trust fund will be depleted in 2024.

To get the word out, Cooper earlier this year proposed the Medicare Information Act, which would send each taxpayer an annual statement tallying up that individual’s expected lifetime scorecard for Medicare costs and benefits. (Similar statements are already issued for Social Security.) The bill was co-sponsored by U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican. A Senate MedInfo bill was introduced this month.

There’s a lot to be said for a bill that involves little more than once-a-year mailing costs and greatly increases public awareness on a vital issue. Until now, Medicare’s tangled-up finances have been scrutinized mostly by academics and policy wonks, whose detailed studies haven’t found wide audiences.

Human nature being what it is, though, it’s unlikely that if Cooper’s bill became law, millions of Americans would open their MedInfo envelopes, stare at the numbers, and declare: “We’re getting too much. We aren’t paying enough. This has to stop!” The more likely outcome: Even with greater disclosure, Medicare will remain the massive social benefit that everyone wants to keep and no one wants to pay for.

(George Anders is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Oct/18/2011 14:43 GMT