Medicare Reform Effort A Bust

The commission that was supposed to find a way to rescue the nation's ailing Medicare program held its final meeting Tuesday, without agreeing on any reform measures.

Members voted against a reform plan at Tuesday's deadline, effectively dissolving the commission and leaving Medicare in as bad a shape as ever, reports CBS News Senior Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer.

Experts agree that unless changes are made, Medicare will go broke in nine years.

When Congress and President Clinton formed the bipartisan commission in 1997, it seemed all sides had finally recognized that something had to be done. But Tuesday's failure quickly dissolved into partisan bickering.

Republican commission members put the blame squarely on President Clinton.

"If you're going to save Medicare, you've got to have the involvement of the White House," Said Republican Senator Phil Gramm. "In the end, the White House was not willing to do the heavy lifting required here."

When he put together the commission, the president offered no specific reform plan and no suggestions to his appointees.

Why didn't the president get more involved? Democratic Senator John Breaux, who chaired the commission, wouldn't say much beyond "the president's been busy." But Breaux was clearly disappointed.

"I think that what we see right now is that policy lost and politics won, and that's very unfortunate," Breaux said.

The commission proposed to give seniors money to buy health insurance rather than have the government pay for medical treatment. It also wanted to raise the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 67, which the president was against.

"I believe their approach falls short in several respects," Mr. Clinton had said. "It will raise the age without insuring older Americans, but they are the fastest growing number of the uninsured."

Breaux and co-chairman Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican, promised to fight for the defeated proposals in Congress.

Mr. Clinton has proposed using 15 percent of the budget surplus to shore up Medicare. He has also suggested the program add payments for prescription drugs. Beyond that, though, the details of the president's plans are unclear.

The Breaux-Thomas plan does not anticipate funneling extra money into Medicare from the budget surplus. But the commission staff estimates that their plan would save the program $100 billion between 2000 and 2009, and enough to keep the program solvent through 2017.

Medicare is now expected to fail in about a decade, just as the huge baby boom generation begins to retire.