* Voucher program proposal for Medicare debated
* Medicare proposal seems "unlikely" - commission's Stern
* Wave of alternative proposals from private groups
(Adds Bowles, Simpson comments)
By Kevin Drawbaugh
WASHINGTON, Nov 18 A proposal to overhaul the
costly Medicare and Medicaid health programs met opposition on
Thursday in a closed-door meeting of a presidential commission
looking for ways to balance the U.S. budget.
As private groups studying the problem of the federal
deficit unleashed a wave of alternative plans, President Barack
Obama's commission convened again on Capitol Hill with just 12
days left before it must issue a final report.
Topping the panel's agenda on Thursday was a proposal to
convert Medicare into a voucher program in a decade and turn
Medicaid over to the states with federal grant funding.
"The most difficult thing to deal with are the healthcare
accounts. That is the 800-pound gorilla in the room," said
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget
Committee and a commission member, as he left the meeting.
"Healthcare accounts is where the biggest part of our
unfunded liability is; it's where the biggest part of our
out-year deficits is. It is the most difficult," he added.
As he exited the session lasting less than two hours,
commission member Andy Stern, a former labor leader, said the
Medicare-Medicaid proposal seemed "unlikely."
"It's hard to imagine that we're going to do a system for
seniors that is not going to stop the overall rise in
healthcare for everybody," said Stern. "So it seems unlikely."
Medicare and Medicaid are major contributors to the
$1.3-trillion federal deficit's projections of massive
increases in the years ahead as well as the fast-mounting
$13.6-trillion national debt.
Voters vented their frustration at the polls this month
about Washington's river of red ink.
RIVLIN, RYAN TEAM UP
Commission member Alice Rivlin, formerly vice chairman of
the Federal Reserve, and Republican Rep. Paul Ryan have
proposed converting Medicare to a voucher program, with
beneficiaries after 2021 receiving vouchers for private
insurance from companies involved in a new insurance exchange.
Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, should be
shifted to the states with federal grants, they proposed.
The Rivlin-Ryan plan is one of many being considered by the
commission, headed by Erskine Bowles and former Republican
Senator Alan Simpson. The two released their own plan last
week. They said it would bring $4 trillion in deficit reduction
"Who knows if we'll get to the promised land, but we feel
good about where we are," Bowles, former chief of staff for
President Bill Clinton, told reporters after the meeting.
"We've come out with a co-chairs' plan ... You won't see a
weaker plan, for sure. But you'll see some refinements," he
said. The commission will meet next publicly on Nov. 30.
Bowles and Simpson are now fine tuning their plan, based on
input from others on the 18-member commission. "It won't be a
watered-down thing like what happens in Washington all the
time, where you start bold and then you get cut to ribbons ...
It won't be pap. It won't be milk sop," Simpson said.
As mandated by Obama, the panel's report must win the
support of 14 members before it can go to Congress for a vote.
"At some point there will be a vote" on the commission
itself, Simpson said.
(For a Factbox on the Bowles-Simpson plan, double-click on
Two private groups have unveiled comprehensive
deficit-cutting plans in recent days, calling for changes to
Social Security and sharp budget cuts. Two more plans are
expected early next month from liberal groups.
The wave of plans and proposals has encouraged Bowles and
Simpson, who have put forward their own set of ideas. But many
analysts are pessimistic about the chances for meaningful
deficit cutting anytime soon in a deeply-divided Congress.
Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a commission member who has
unveiled her own deficit-fighting plan, expressed some doubt
about the commission's final outcome as she left the meeting.
"I really don't see how this all gels into a comprehensive
proposal yet," she told reporters.