ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
When it comes to the federal budget, one of the biggest drains is Medicare, the government system for providing healthcare for the elderly and disabled. A report released this week says Medicare's fiscal future does not look good.
And as NPR's Joanne Silberner reports, this might sound familiar.
JOANNE SILBERNER: Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt is one of the trustees of Medicare. He announced the release of the analysis of Medicare's fiscal health and described a sense of deja vu.
Secretary MICHAEL LEAVITT (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services): That's the way spring is in Washington. We see the cherry blossoms and hear Medicare warnings. The cherry blossoms go away, and nothing happens with Medicare.
SILBERNER: Every year the only mystery in the annual trustees' report is the exact number of years Medicare has before it's projected to go into the red. This year the trustees estimate that there are 11 years of life left for the part of Medicare that covers hospital bills. Sometimes it's more. Sometimes it's less.
Economist and former Medicare trustee Marilyn Moon says there's no cause for immediate alarm.
Ms. MARILYN MOON (Economist, Former Medicare Trustee): We've gotten much closer to having insolvency in the trust fund, and we have always found a way to push that off.
SILBERNER: In the past, the solution has been raising premiums, or limiting some services, or charging richer people more. Leavitt is pushing President Bush's plan for healing Medicare: malpractice reform, electronic health records, higher payments for richer people. Moon says the cure for Medicare is more fundamental than that.
Ms. MOON: It's not a problem that has anything to do with the fact that this is a public program. It has to do with the fact that health care in the United States is very expensive.
SILBERNER: Moon says until the nation finds a way to bring more money into the system and hold medical costs down, Medicare will have to limp on as it has been, relying on patches that keep it going another few years.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News, Washington.
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