George Will

WASHINGTON -- Health care, says the man most concerned with that 17 percent of America's economy, can be "a nation-ruining issue." As Michael Leavitt ends four years as secretary of health and human services, he offers this attention-arresting arithmetic: Absent fundamental reforms, over the next two decades the average American household's health care spending, including the portion of its taxes that pays for Medicare and Medicaid, will go from 23 percent to 41 percent of average household income.

It is, Leavitt says, "predictable" that today's traumatizing economic turbulence, by heightening Americans' insecurity, will complicate reforming entitlements. This, too, is predictable: By curtailing revenues, today's recession will bring closer the projected exhaustion of the Medicare Part A trust fund, from early 2019 to perhaps 2016. That should get the president-elect's attention.

When Medicare was created in 1965, America's median age was 28.4; now it is 36.6. The elderly are more numerous and medicine is more broadly competent than was then anticipated. Leavitt says that Medicare's "big three" hospital procedure expenses today are hip and knee replacements and cardiovascular operations with stents, which were not on medicine's menu in 1965.

After being elected to three terms as Utah's governor, but before coming to HHS, Leavitt headed the Environmental Protection Agency. He came to consider it a public health agency because the surge in Americans'

longevity in the last third of the 20th century correlated with cleaner air and fewer water-borne diseases. Longevity is, however, expensive, and demography is compounding the problem.

In the 43 years since America decided that health care for the elderly would be paid for by people still working, the ratio of workers to seniors has steadily declined. And the number of seniors living long enough to have five or more chronic conditions -- 23 percent of Medicare beneficiaries -- has increased. Many of those conditions could be prevented or managed by better decisions about eating, exercising and smoking. The 20 percent of Americans who still smoke are a much larger percentage of the 23 percent who consume 67 percent of Medicare spending. Furthermore, nearly 30 percent of Medicare spending pays for care in the final year of patients' lives.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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