FOR THE SAKE OF political expediency, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has seriously compromised the work of a blue-ribbon panel charged with finding a way to keep the Medicare program afloat over the long term. He has so hamstrung the panel -- even before its first meeting -- that there is serious doubt about its ability to do its job effectively.
What Mr. Gingrich did was require that his four appointees to the 17-member panel take a "no tax increase" pledge. That may be good Republican politics, but it is bad public policy. It so restricts the work of these four appointees that it may lead to a deadlock on how to finance Medicare in the 21st century.
This panel was set up as part of the balanced-budget deal. The idea was that a group of distinguished experts would recommend a series of steps to bolster Medicare -- probably a combination of higher beneficiary premiums, cuts in reimbursements to health-care providers and possibly higher payroll taxes to pay for increasingly expensive medical care for the nation's elderly, especially after 2010 when the huge baby-boomer generation starts to retire.
Now that concept has been effectively undermined by Mr. Gingrich. Indeed, one potential Gingrich nominee, the executive director of the American Association of Retired Persons, refused to take the no-taxes pledge and was rejected. Horace Deets noted with considerable accuracy, "The commission should look for all possible solutions. It's too early to take anything off the table."
Instead, Mr. Gingrich decided to demagogue on the no-taxes issues. Yet how does he propose shoring up Medicare's wobbly future if he's unwilling to even consider the tax side of the equation? Would he chop health-care benefits instead? He's got some explaining to do.
Sadly, the legislative appointees to this panel are dominated by members of Congress, all of whom come to the table with political agendas. That is unfortunate. Taking a hard look at the future of Medicare requires expertise in health-care and demographic trends and some courageous analysis of what must be done to make Medicare financially viable for decades to come. Mr. Gingrich has made himself part of the problem when he should have been eager to use his power to help craft a solution.
Pub Date: 12/08/97