A Primer on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 6, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Primer on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security


Byline: Mark S. Luckie Washington Post

Q: What's the difference between Medicare and Medicaid?

A: Medicare is a health insurance program managed by the U.S. government for people 65 or older and for younger people with certain disabilities. More than 47 million people are covered by Medicare. Medicaid is a joint federal-state health program for certain categories of people with lower incomes such as children, pregnant women and those with disabilities. More than 50 million people are now estimated to be on Medicaid, and 100 million Americans are forecast to be on Medicaid by 2021.

Q: Who gets Social Security?

A: Signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression. Social Security collects money through payroll taxes and distributes it to eligible retired workers, eligible disabled workers and beneficiaries of both groups. In March, 51.7 million people received Social Security benefits. The average payout was $1,077 a month.

Q: What do these programs have to do with the debate over the federal budget?

A: Spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security has been rising dramatically, consuming an increasingly larger share of the federal budget; if left unchecked, the programs will become an even bigger financial burden. Currently, $2 out of every $5 in the budget goes to these insurance programs.

Q: What happens if we don't do anything?

A: By 2020, spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and interest on the debt will usurp much of the revenue from federal taxes, leaving other government expenditures such as education and transportation to be paid for with borrowed funds, according to a report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). Medicare is expected to run out of money by 2029, according to a Medicare Trustees report released last year. Social Security paid out more in benefits than it received from payroll taxes for the first time last year - meaning the program will now begin drawing down savings in its trust fund. That money is forecast to be drained by 2037, when the program will have only enough revenue to pay 75 percent of scheduled benefits. Social Security, however, will begin to affect the broader budget picture long before then, as Congress is forced to raise taxes or cut spending to pay off its debt to the trust fund and cover the full cost of benefits.

Q: What are the solutions on the table for Medicare?

A: House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, proposes to end Medicare as an open-ended entitlement starting in 2022, converting it into a system of premium supports that would pay part of the cost of private insurance for new retirees. …

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