THE trustees who oversee Social Security and Medicare are running out of ways to say that changes to the systems are badly needed. Or perhaps they’ve just given up trying.
In their report two years ago, trustees said lawmakers “should not delay addressing the long-run financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare. If they take action sooner rather than later, more options and more time will be available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”
They did little more than copy and paste their conclusion in the 2014 report, issued last week. Lawmakers should “address the financial challenges facing Social Security and Medicare as soon as possible,” they said. Taking action “sooner rather than later” will leave more time to “phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare.”
To be fair, there are only so many ways to say that not much has changed regarding the liquidity of Social Security and Medicare. They’re both on track to run out of money.
This year’s report included a sliver of encouraging news: Medicare’s hospital insurance program covered about 1 million more people last year than in 2012, yet spent less on benefits, which is viewed in some circles as evidence that provisions in the Affordable Care Act are working.
Trustees project that without changes to the law, Medicare will be able to pay full hospital benefits to its clients through 2030. That’s four years longer than estimated a year ago, but hardly worth celebrating — 2030 is just 16 years away.
Social Security is projected to remain solvent until 2034, which is unchanged from last year, although the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund is in really dire straits: Trustees said it’s expected to be depleted by late 2016. Last year, payments from this fund totaled about $140 billion, distributed among 11 million Americans. That compares with 7.9 million people collecting $78.2 billion a decade ago.
Apparently lax standards regarding disability payments, which are intended for those who can no longer work, have been scrutinized by members of Congress, including Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City. A subcommittee headed by Lankford found last year that nearly 200 administrative law judges (ALJs) approved at least 75 percent of the disability claims they handled, even though the people seeking the claims had already been deemed ineligible for benefits — twice.
The Social Security Administration has since rewritten the job description for ALJ’s, to make them subject to agency supervision, a move designed to increase oversight and reduce fraud.
To bolster the disability fund, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has endorsed a plan to infuse it with funds from Social Security’s main program. If approved, that would add several years to the disability fund’s expiration date but move up to 2033 the year when Social Security would run on empty.
That would be little more than nibbling at the edges. Medicare and Social Security, which the trustees noted eat up 41 percent of the federal budget, need wholesale changes. But Democrats on Capitol Hill regularly dismiss such suggestions out of hand.
Until that changes, we can expect more cutting and pasting by the trustees in the years ahead.