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Title: A tale of three numbers

Author: N/A


FOR THE PAST TWO YEARS, the Republican Party has conducted a remarkably successful PR campaign concerning its proposals for the Medicare program. Republicans have argued that "there are no cuts" in their six-year Medicare plan, and that President Clinton is deceiving the public when he talks about Medicare "cuts."

Again and again, citizens have been told that, under the GOP plan, "Medicare will continue to grow." And Clinton has been routinely been denounced as a liar for his reference to GOP "cuts."

The election is over and the time is coming when the two parties will have to deal with Medicare. And the time has come for Republicans to speak more honestly about both parties' Medicare proposals—and for the mainstream press to report with more clarity about the apparent future of the Medicare program.

For the record, I do not speak as an automatic antagonist to the general outlines of the GOP plan. I think the level of spending proposed by the GOP is within the range of what seems to be reasonable.

But the GOP's insistence that "there are no cuts" has misled the public about its proposal. And the GOP has bullied and browbeaten the national press into reporting this issue the way the GOP likes it, producing an endless stream of misleading reporting about proposed adjustments to Medicare.

The time has come to sharpen the discourse about both parties' Medicare plans. And when we do that, the facts are clear: at present, both parties propose spending substantially less in future years than it would cost to maintain the current program. And the spending levels the GOP has proposed will almost surely produce a reduction in Medicare services—despite the drone-like assertions of the national press corps that "Medicare will continue to grow."

THE FACTS: IN ITS 1995 BUDGET PROPOSAL, the GOP proposed spending $6700 per Medicare recipient in the year 2002. At the time, the Republican-supervised Congressional Budget Office was estimating it would cost around $8000 per recipient to keep running the current Medicare program in that year.

Hence, the GOP proposed spending $6700 per person in a program it would cost $8000 just to maintain. Throughout 1995, this was a proposal Speaker Gingrich described as a "40% increase in Medicare."

Gingrich sustained this comic distortion by presenting only two parts of a three-number story. Throughout 1995, Gingrich compared then-current spending in the Medicare program ($4800 per recipient) to proposed spending for the year 2002 ($6700). This comparison was used to create the impression of a massive "increase in the Medicare program."

Never mentioned was the ongoing CBO estimate of what the program would cost by 2002. Needless to say, the GOP's $6700 proposal takes on a vastly changed aspect when compared to the $8000 CBO estimate. Inexcusably, it is a comparison the press corps has virtually never made in the course of the past two years.

Current numbers: at the end of the 104th Congress, the GOP was proposing to spend $7100 per Medicare recipient in the year 2002. The current CBO estimate? It will take $8090 per recipient to run the current program in that year. There is virtually no likelihood that, at the GOP spending level, Medicare "will continue to grow."

In fairness, the GOP has proposed reforms for the program that are intended to make it more cost-effective. It is at least conceivable (though far from obvious) that the GOP could provide something resembling current Medicare services for $7100 in 2002.

But I know of no reason to think—as the press has insisted—that, under GOP proposals, "Medicare will continue to grow." In a rational universe, we are now searching for ways to maintain current levels of service. We are certainly not looking forward to the "40% increase in the Medicare program" that Gingrich's slippery presentation has seemed to forecast.

IT IS INDEED IRONIC THAT THE MAINSTREAM PRESS has fallen in line for the Speaker's presentation. For the press corps' drumbeat assertion—that "no one is cutting the Medicare program"—contradicts reporting the press corps has presented over the past twenty years.

During that period, the mainstream press has repeatedly published a standard sort of "good government" story concerning the future of entitlement programs. In these stories, budget analysts have argued that our entitlement programs will not prove sustainable—that substantial changes will have to be made in these programs when the baby boomers start retiring.

With the budget proposals made in the 104th Congress, these predictions are now being acted out. But, over the past two years, the mainstream press has taken its lead from absurdly misleading GOP spin, dogmatically asserting again and again that "Medicare will continue to grow."

The level of spending the GOP has proposed may turn out to be all we can really afford. But the public deserves to be given all three parts of the three-number Medicare story.


Table: A tale of three numbers (current data)

  1. Per recipient Medicare spending, 1996: $5300
  2. GOP proposed spending, 2002: $7100
  3. CBO's projected cost of the current program in 2002: $8090

The press corps has routinely reported lines 1 and 2, and omitted line 3 from its stories.