Long-term unfunded obligations in Medicare and Social Security alone reached nearly $49 trillion, according to the 2014 report from the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees. That’s nearly three times the size of the total national debt of $17.6 trillion, or more than $150,000 for every person in the U.S.
It helps to break down the numbers so taxpayers and seniors can grasp the full meaning of the entitlement programs’ financial states and how their unchecked growth will affect the federal budget.
Medicare and Social Security are the largest and most popular government programs, and they are threatening to impose a huge financial burden on American taxpayers if Congress fails to stop their excessive spending growth. Alternatively, if Congress does nothing, even the most vulnerable Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries would see their benefits drastically cut after 2030.
Medicare and Social Security’s $49 trillion unfunded obligation represents the net-present value of Medicare’s and Social Security’s projected spending in excess of revenues the programs can expect to receive under current law.
In other words, Congress would need to set aside nearly $49 trillion today to fund those benefits in the future.
Congress should make a down payment on these obligations today. The longer lawmakers wait, the more drastic and painful the reforms that will be needed to rectify the entitlement spending crisis in the future.
Medicare Part A (primarily inpatient hospital services) is financed almost entirely through the Medicare payroll deduction. Medicare’s trustees project the Part A trust fund will be depleted in 2030 at which point benefits could be paid only to the extent revenue comes in, meaning either benefit cuts, tax increases or some combination of both.
Medicare’s unfunded obligations range between $28 trillion and $35 trillion. The higher, more realistic estimate assumes the Medicare payment cuts enacted in Obamacare aren’t implemented as currently in law. This is because these are projected to be too difficult and unrealistic to sustain as their implementation would lead to access and quality-of-care issues for seniors.
The combined 75-year unfunded obligation of the Social Security and Disability Insurance Trust Funds (referred to collectively as the OASDI Trust Fund) reached $13.4 trillion in 2013.
The OASDI trust fund will be depleted by 2033. But considered separately, the Disability Insurance Trust Fund is projected to remain solvent for only two more years, until 2016, after which point benefits would be reduced by 19 percent.
Congress should reform the disability program before its trust fund is depleted. By tightening eligibility criteria and helping more beneficiaries and applicants return to work, Congress can preserve benefits for those unable to work and increase labor force participation by the marginally disabled.
The federal government has promised tens of trillions of dollars’ worth of Medicare and Social Security benefits it can’t pay for over the long run.
The programs are unsustainable as structured today. The massive extent of their unfunded obligations is a clear indicator that reforms are urgent and necessary.
To solve the federal government’s entitlement crisis, Congress should build upon the defined-contribution (premium support) payment structure already used in Medicare Part D, a competitive system of private drug plans. Medicare premium support could save both taxpayers and seniors money.
Social Security’s retirement program should serve its original purpose of poverty protection at retirement with a flat benefit above the poverty level. Beyond, Americans should control more of their own retirement dollars in personal accounts with the help of proposals such as the Auto-IRA.
This article has been modified.