National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare

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Final Version:  March 16, 1999



This recommendation is in three parts:

  • the design of a premium support system,
  • improvements to the current Medicare program, and
  • financing and solvency of the Medicare program.

We believe it is important to address the current program now because of the transition time necessary to implement this premium support system. We assume the enactment of this proposal in 1999 and that the premium support system would be fully operational in 2003.

We believe a premium support system is necessary to enable Medicare beneficiaries to obtain secure, dependable, comprehensive high quality health care coverage comparable to what most workers have today. We believe modeling a system on the one Members of Congress use to obtain health care coverage for themselves and their families is appropriate. This proposal, while based on that system, is different in several important ways in order to better meet the unique health care needs of seniors and individuals with disabilities. Our proposal would allow beneficiaries to choose from among competing comprehensive health plans in a system based on a blend of existing government protections and market-based competition. Unlike today’s Medicare program, our proposal ensures that low income seniors would have comprehensive health care coverage.

Because the implementation of a premium support system will take a number of years, we recommend immediate improvements to the current Medicare program. In Section II we outline the incremental improvements to enhance the beneficiaries’ security and quality of care now. We recommend immediate federal funding of pharmaceutical coverage through Medicaid for seniors up to 135% of poverty ($10,568 for an individual and $13,334 for a couple). This would also expand beneficiary participation in currently available subsidies for premiums and cost-sharing.

In reviewing the three parts of this proposal, it is important to keep in mind the different government roles in the premium support system and in current law. We believe the guarantee our society makes to every senior is to ensure that they can obtain the highest quality health care, and that their health care coverage not be allowed to fall behind that available to people in their working years. We believe that our society’s commitment to seniors, the Medicare entitlement, can be made more secure only by focusing the government’s powers on ensuring comprehensive coverage at an affordable price rather than continuing the inefficiency, inequity, and inadequacy of the current Medicare program.


The Medicare Board

A Medicare Board should be established to oversee and negotiate with private plans and the government-run fee-for-service plan. Some examples of the Board’s role are: direct and oversee periodic open enrollment periods; provide comparative information to beneficiaries regarding the plans in their areas; transmit information about beneficiaries’ plan selections and corresponding premium obligations to the Social Security Administration to permit premium collection as occurs today with Medicare Part B premiums; enforce financial and quality standards; review and approve benefit packages and service areas to ensure against the adverse selection that could be created through benefit design, delineation of service areas or other techniques; negotiate premiums with all health plans; and compute payments to plans (including risk and geographic adjustment).

This Board would operate under a government charter that would describe its responsibilities and operating standards including the ability to hire without regard to civil service requirements and salary restrictions.

Ensuring Plan Performance and Dependability

All plans (private plans and the government-run FFS plan) would compete in the premium support system; all plans would have Board-approved benefit designs and premiums. The Board would ensure that the benefits provided under all plans are self-funded and self-sustaining, determining whether plan premium submissions meet strict tests for actuarial soundness, assessing the adequacy of reserves, and monitoring their performance capacity.

Management of Government-run Fee-for-service in Premium Support

The government plan would have to be self-funded and self-sustaining and meet the same requirements applied to all private plans, including whether its premium submissions meet strict tests for actuarial soundness, the adequacy of reserves, and performance capacity.

Cost containment measures would be necessary. The provisions of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 should be extended, or comparable savings achieved. In any region where the price control structure of the government run plan is not competitive, the government-run fee-for-service plan could operate on the basis of contracts negotiated with local providers on price and performance, just as is the case with private plans. The government plan would be run through contractors as it is today; contractors in one region would be able to bid in other regions; the Board should have powers to assure that the government-run plan would not distort local markets.

 Benefits Package

A standard benefits package would be specified in law. This benefits package would consist of all services covered under the existing Medicare statute. Plans would be able to offer additional benefits beyond the core package and plans would be able to vary cost sharing, including copay and deductible levels, subject to Board approval. Benefits would be updated through the annual negotiations process between plans and the Board, although the Board would not have the power to expand the standard benefit package without Congressional approval. Health plans would establish rules and procedures to assure delivery of benefits in a manner consistent with prevailing private standards and procedures offered to employer groups and other major purchasers.

The Medicare Board would approve benefit offerings and could allow variation within a limited range, for example not more than 10% of the actuarial value of the standard package, provided the Board was satisfied that the overall valuation of the package would be consistent with statutory objectives and would not lead to adverse or unfavorable risk selection problems in the Medicare market.

New benefit to be instituted in the premium support system: Outpatient prescription drug coverage and stop-loss protection

In Private Plans:

Private plans would be required to offer a high option that includes at least Medicare covered services plus coverage for outpatient prescription drugs and stop-loss protection. Plans would be able to vary copay and deductible structures. Minimum drug benefits for high option plans would be based on an actuarial valuation. High option and standard option plans each would be required to be self-funded and self-sustaining.

In Government-run Fee-For-Service Plan:

The government-run fee-for-service plan would be required to offer high option (including outpatient prescription drugs and stop-loss) in addition to standard option plans. The Medicare Board approval process would be the same as for private plans. High option and standard option plans would be required to be separately self-funded and self-sustaining. Government contracts would be based on prices commonly available in the market, without recourse to price controls or rebates.

Comprehensive coverage for low-income beneficiaries:

Coverage would be provided through high option plans. The federal government would pay 100% of the premiums of the high option plans at or below 85% of the national weighted average premium of all high option plans for all eligible individuals up to 135% of poverty ($10,568 for an individual and $13,334 for a couple) on a fully federally funded basis. In areas where all high option plans cost more than this 85% threshold, the percentage will be determined locally to ensure that all low-income beneficiaries have access to high option plans.  This financial support does not limit these beneficiaries’ choice of plans nor restrict plans’ design with regard to cost-sharing or other flexibility authorized by the Board. State would maintain their current level of effort, but the federal government would pay 100% of additional costs for these individuals. In this context, Congress should review DSH payments to ensure that double payments do not occur.

Premium Formula Basics

On average, beneficiaries would be expected to pay 12 percent of the total cost of standard option plans. For plans that cost at or less than 85 percent of the national weighted average plan price, there would be no beneficiary premium. For plans with prices above the national weighted average, beneficiaries’ premiums would include all costs above the national weighted average.

Only the cost of the standard package would count toward the computation of the national weighted average premium. Plans with a high option, whether private plans or government-run, would separately identify the incremental costs of benefits beyond the standard package in their submissions to the Board, and the government contribution would be calculated without regard to the costs of these additional benefits.

Premium for government-run fee-for-service plans

The government-run fee-for-service plan would be treated the same as private plans.

Government-run plan premium excludes costs of special subsidies in premium calculation

All non-insurance functions and special payments now in Medicare would not be included in calculation of premiums for the government-run FFS plan or private plans.

Guaranteed premium levels where competition develops more slowly

In areas where no competition to the government-run fee-for-service plan exists, beneficiaries’ obligations would be no greater than 12 percent of the FFS premium or the national weighted average, whichever is lower. The Medicare Board should periodically review those areas with a fixed percentage premium to ensure that the fixed percentage premium is not anti-competitive.

Medicare’s Special Payments in a Premium Support System

Congress should examine all non-insurance functions, special payments and subsidies to determine whether they should be funded through the Trust fund or from another source. For example, payments for Direct Medical Education (DME) would be financed and distributed independent of a Medicare premium support system. Since the Part A and Part B trust funds would be combined and the traditionally separate funding sources of payroll taxes and general revenues would be blurred, Congress should provide a separate mechanism for continued funding through either a mandatory entitlement or multi-year discretionary appropriation program. On the other hand, Indirect Medical Education (IME) presents a unique problem since it is difficult to identify the actual statistical difference in costs between teaching and non-teaching hospitals. Therefore, for now Congress should continue to fund IME from the Trust Fund as an adjustment to hospital payments.


Provide Outpatient Prescription Drug Coverage for 3 million more low-income beneficiaries

Immediately provide federal funding for coverage of prescription drugs under Medicaid for beneficiaries up to 135 percent of poverty ($10,568 for an individual and $13,334 for a couple). This would also expand beneficiary participation in currently available subsidies for premiums and cost-sharing. All funding obligations related to the coverage under this provision would be federal.

Improve access to outpatient prescription drug coverage for seniors

Revise federal directives to National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) to develop new Medigap state model legislation immediately. All private supplemental plans would include basic coverage for prescription drugs. One plan would be a prescription drug-only plan.

Combine Parts A and B

Health care delivery changes have blurred the distinctions originally contemplated when Parts A and B of Medicare were enacted. Parts A and B should be combined in a single Medicare Trust Fund. (See Section III on Financing and Solvency.)

Lower deductible for 8 million beneficiaries

The current Medicare program subjects beneficiaries entering the hospital to extremely high costs just at a time when they face the many other expenses associated with serious illness. Virtually no private health plan imposes such costs. We propose to combine the current Part A ($768) deductible and B ($100) deductible, and replace it with a single deductible of $400, which should be indexed to growth in Medicare costs.

Improve utilization of health care services

A fee-for-service plan is best maintained by financial incentives, without which costs spiral out of control or freedom of choice must be restricted. To protect against unnecessary rises in beneficiary Part B premiums, 10% coinsurance would be established for all services except inpatient hospital stay and preventive care, and except where higher copays exist under current law.

Revise federal directives to NAIC to develop new state model legislation to conform to the changes proposed for Medicare cost-sharing. These directives should also be designed to achieve more affordable and more efficient supplemental insurance and to minimize Medicare outlays. The new single Medicare deductible and coinsurance schedule would be insurable in part or in whole.

Eligibility Age

Medicare eligibility age should be conformed to that of Social Security. A non-subsidized buy-in should be available at age 65. In addition, Congress should develop a special category of eligibility based on specific needs-based criteria, for example selected activities of daily living, for individuals between age 65 and then-current eligibility age.


The changes proposed in this document are intended to put Medicare on surer financial footing by creating savings due to competition, efficiency and other factors, and by slowing the growth in Medicare spending. In addition, these reforms would result in Medicare offering a benefit package that is more comparable to health care benefits offered in the private sector and would enhance our ability to meet our commitment to today's and future beneficiaries. Without these changes, quality of care could suffer, and significantly greater revenues and/or beneficiary sacrifices would be required. Beneficiaries and the taxpayers would not receive the greatest value for the total health dollars spent on seniors’ behalf.

Medicare’s financing needs would be dictated by the Medicare growth rate achieved under the premium support system. By moving to a premium support system, Medicare’s growth rate would be reduced by 1 to 1.5 percentage points per year from the current long-term annual growth rate of 7.6 percent (Trustees Intermediate) or 8.6 (Commission’s No Slowdown Baseline.) If this reduction in growth rate can be achieved, the fiscal integrity and Medicare would be significantly improved.

Even if the estimated reduction in growth rate is achieved, Medicare will require additional resources as the percent of population that is eligible for Medicare increases. As revenue is needed, how much should be funded through the payroll tax, through general revenue, and through beneficiary premiums?

The answer to this question is difficult because it would require knowing today the health care system of the future. We do not know what the future holds in terms of the evolution of the health care delivery system, or the impact that technology will have on health care costs.

At the Commission’s first meeting, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that "the trajectory of health spending in coming years will depend importantly on the course of technology which has been a key driver of per-person health costs."   Yet he went on to underscore what could be the absurdity of attempting now to determine funding levels necessary decades into the future "technology cuts both ways with respect to both saving medical expenditures and potentially expanding the possibilities in such a manner that even though unit costs may be falling, the absolute dollar amounts could be expanding at a very rapid pace. One of the major problems that everyone has had with technology--and I could allude to all sorts of forecasts over the most recent generations--one of the largest difficulties is in forecasting the pattern of technology. It is an extremely difficult activity."

Notwithstanding the magnitude of uncertainty contained in the task, the statute establishing the Commission directed us to recommend measures to attain the long-term "solvency" of the Medicare program. Because of recent history the meaning of "solvency" has come under question. We believe a new measure of solvency must be developed that couples the uncertainty inherent in the task with the real need for the public to evaluate the cost of Medicare and how we should choose to fund this program over time.

The solvency test that has been applied to Social Security is not an apt model for Medicare. Social Security Trust Funds are funded exclusively through payroll taxes; Medicare is paid for by a combination of payroll taxes, general revenue and beneficiary premiums. These ratios have changed over time such that a greater portion of program expenses is now paid by general revenues and a relatively smaller portion is paid by payroll taxes and beneficiary premiums.

In addition, the payroll tax supporting the OASDI Trust Funds is limited both by its rate and the wage base on which that rate is applied. No portion of Medicare’s funding contains these limitations. In Medicare, there is no cap on the wage base; the Part A Trust Fund is funded by a payroll tax of 2.9% on all earnings, and pays only for the Part A benefits of Medicare. Medicare’s Part B benefits are paid 75% by general revenues and 25% by beneficiaries.

Consequently, the historic concept of Medicare’s solvency is one that has been partially and inappropriately borrowed from Social Security and has never fully reflected the fiscal integrity, or lack thereof, of the Medicare program. In Medicare, "solvency" has meant only whether the Part A Trust Fund outlays were poised to exceed Part A reserves and collections. That is all.

Recently even this partial proof of fiscal integrity has been shattered. The notion of Part A "solvency" or rather "insolvency" has been used to shift more program costs to the general fund. An act of Congress shifted major home health expenditures from Part A to Part B in 1997, thus extending the fiction of the Part A Trust Fund "solvency" from 2002 through 2008 by shifting obligations to the general fund. The general fund, in great part, became the source of Part A "solvency".

The ever increasing estimates of general fund exposure should be part of any definition of solvency. Absent reform, general fund exposure jumps from 37% of program funding in FY2000 to 43% in FY2005 and 49% in FY2010. General fund demand will increase from $92 billion in FY2000 to $156 billion in FY2005 to $261 billion in FY2010.

Consequently, the "solvency" of the Part A Trust Fund is not useful as a guide to policy making or even as a tool to educate the public on the security and financial condition of the Medicare program.

Therefore, Part A and Part B Trust Funds should be combined into a single Medicare Trust Fund and a new concept of solvency for Medicare should be developed. This concept should more accurately reflect the implications of the program’s financing structure, i.e., the ratio of relative financing burdens on the general fund, the Hospital Insurance payroll tax, and the premiums beneficiaries pay. Because beneficiary premiums and the payroll tax rate can only be amended by law, and have proved very difficult to modify over time, the only meaningful solvency test of this entitlement program is one based on the amount of general revenues needed to fund program outlays. This could be referred to as a programmatic solvency test.

Congress should enact this revised definition of Medicare solvency so that decisions can be made in the context of competing demands for general revenue. Congress should require the Trustees to publish annual projections regarding the ratio in program financing. In any year in which the general fund contributions are projected to exceed 40% of annual total Medicare program outlays, the Trustees would be required to notify the Congress that the Medicare program is in danger of becoming programmatically insolvent. The Trustees Report should provide for necessary and important public debate leading to potential adjustments to the payroll tax and/or the beneficiary premium as well as any adjustment of the general fund devoted to Medicare. Congressional approval would be required to authorize any additional contributions to the Medicare Trust Fund.

With the reforms contemplated under this proposal, that new test would probably not be activated until after 2005. Even if we limit general revenue contributions to 40% of program outlays, however, this proposal would extend the solvency of Medicare to 2013. This calculation, based on the most recent CBO baseline, would indicate that solvency under this test would extend to 2017 or beyond.

Long-term care

The Commission recognizes that its proposal is focused on acute care, and does not address the issue of long-term care. In 1995, Americans spent an estimated $91 billion on long-term care, with 60 percent coming from public sources. Despite these large public expenditures, the elderly face significant uncovered liabilities. The Commission recommends that the Institute of Medicine conduct a study to 1) estimate future demands for long-term care; and 2) analyze the long-term care financing options available to seniors, including long-term care insurance, tax policy and community-based, state and federal government programs.

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