REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT
ON MEDICARE REFORM
Outside Oval Office
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. I would like to beginby saying that our thoughts and prayers are with all those people whowere involved in this morning's Amtrak crash in Illinois. We'vedispatched safety officials from the National Transportation SafetyBoard and other federal investigators to the site to lead theinvestigation. I want you to know that we will do everything we canto help the victims and their families, and to ensure that theinvestigation moves forward with great care and speed.
Now, before I leave for Florida I would also like tocomment on an issue of vital importance to our future -- how tostrengthen the Medicare program for the 21st century.
Today, Senator Breaux and Representative Thomas willhold a final meeting of their Medicare Commission. Although it didnot achieve consensus, the commission has helped to focus longoverdue attention on the need to modernize and prepare the programfor the retirement of the baby boom generation, and for the presentstresses it faces. The commission has done valuable work, work thatwe can and must build on to craft Medicare reform.
Make no mistake, we must modernize and strengthenMedicare. For more than three decades, it has been more than aprogram. It has been a way to honor our parents and grandparents, toprotect our families. It has been literally lifesaving for many,many seniors with whom I have personally talked.
In my 1993 economic plan that put our country on thepath to fiscal responsibility, we took the first steps to strengthenMedicare. In 1997, in the bipartisan balanced budget agreement, wetook even more significant actions to improve benefits, expandchoices for recipients, to fight waste, fraud and abuse, and tolengthen the life of the trust fund.
But as the baby boomers retire, and medical scienceextends the lives of millions, we must do more -- we must take somestrong and perhaps difficult steps to modernize Medicare so that itcan fully meet the needs of our country in the new century. If wedon't act, it will run out of funds. That would represent a brokenpromise to generations of Americans, and wecannot allow it to happen.
As I said in January, we must act, and when we do ouractions should be grounded in some firm principles. We mustseize the opportunity created by our balanced budget and surplusto devote 15 percent of the surplus to strengthen the trust fund.
We must modernize Medicare and make it more competitive, adoptingthe best practices from the private sector and maintaining highquality services. We must ensure that it continues to provideevery citizen with a guaranteed set of benefits. And we mustmake prescription drugs more accessible and affordable toMedicare beneficiaries.
The plan offered by Senator Breaux and his colleaguesincluded some very strong elements, which should be seriouslyconsidered by Congress. However, I believe their approach fallsshort in several respects. First it would raise the age ofeligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67, without a policy to guardagainst increasing numbers of uninsured Americans.
I know that back in 1983, the commission voted inSocial Security and the Congress ratified a decision to slowlyraise the Social Security age to 67. But there is a profounddifference here. Perhaps the fastest growing number of uninsuredpeople are those between the ages of 55 and 65. We cannot simplyraise the age to 67 without knowing how we're going to providefor health insurance options for those who are already left outin the cold between the ages of 55 and 65. It is simply not theright thing to do.
Also, the proposal has the potential to increasepremiums for those in the traditional Medicare program beyond theordinary inflation premiums that keep the percentage paid by thebeneficiaries the same. It does not provide for an adequateaffordable prescription drug benefit.
But most important of all, it fails to make a solidcommitment of 15 percent of the surplus to the Medicare trustfund. That is the biggest problem. Even if all the changesrecommended by the commission were adopted, because of theprojected inflation rates in health care costs, it would not besufficient to stabilize the fund. Only by making this kind ofcommitment can we keep the program on firm financial ground wellinto the next century.
Every independent expert agrees that Medicare cannotprovide for the baby boom generation without substantial newrevenues. Beyond that, it is clear the it will also require usto make difficult political and policy choices. Devoting 15percent of the surplus to Medicare would stabilize the program --and improve our ability to modernize and improve its services,and to make those hard choices.
I want to thank the members of the Medicare Commissionfor their hard work and for their recommendations. Today, I aminstructing my advisors to draft a plan to strengthen Medicarefor the 21st century, which I will present to this Congress. Ilook forward to a good and healthy debate about how best tostrengthen this essential program. We must find agreement thisyear. Medicare is too important to let partisan politics standin the way of vital progress. I believe if we make the hardchoices, if we work together, if we act this year, we can secureMedicare into the future.
Thank you very much.
Q Mr. President, your critics are suggesting that bynot endorsing the Breaux plan you're simply assuring that therewill be a campaign issue, something the Democrats can run on.
THE PRESIDENT: I want an agreement this year. I havegiven my best assessment of where we are now, of what my
objections are. I think it is now incumbent upon me to presentan alternative proposal, and I will do that.
But I want to make it clear that I believe we owe it tothe American people to make an agreement this year, and I'm goingto do my dead-level best to get it done.
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