The Voters' Entitlement

Concerns over the Medicare Trust Fund heightened with the release of new government figures showing the fund is losing money even faster than anticipated.

That is not, however, very likely to make Congress or the administration rush to address the issue. Fall election strategies ensure that no one will tackle Medicare reform until after voters have had their say. But vigorous debate over who's on the virtuous side of this sensitive issue - that's another matter.

The Democrats are rallying their forces for an ad blitz against the Republican effort to "cut Medicare." Their target audience: the legions of elderly who rely on the government-funded program and who vote faithfully. Democrats from the president on down feel they have a sure winner with this issue.

The problem is, they're distorting the issue. Congressional Republicans have indeed fielded a plan to reduce the growth in Medicare spending, to the tune of $168 billion over seven years. But President Clinton has put forward his own plan to trim the growth of spending by $124 billion over the same period.

The Republicans would try to cut costs by encouraging more people to enter managed-care plans. So, to a lesser extent, would the Clinton plan. Both plans would demand higher out-of-pocket premiums. The yearly amount the government spends on each Medicare recipient would go up by 5 to 7 percent under either plan. Without reform, the increase would be more than 8 percent.

There was a time this past year when it appeared a bipartisan compromise on this crucial piece of entitlement reform was at least thinkable. Both sides recognized that something had to be done, and that Medicare, a ballooning part of the federal budget, was the courageous place to start.

That time has passed for now. But the next six months offer a chance to put the issue before Americans with something approaching honesty. Republican campaign planners, to their credit, are attempting to launch an "educational" campaign to get across to voters, particularly older ones, that Medicare spending can't be sustained at current levels.

That tactic may include its own kind of self-serving distortions, but it may also force the other side to acknowledge that its standard-bearer is on record with a reform plan, too. Emotional appeals, decrying "heartless Republicans" and "big-spending Democrats," will be heard ad infinitam. Appeals to reason and to our responsibility for future generations will be welcome. The voters are entitled to nothing less.

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