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Obama: Future of Medicare Depends on Health Care Reform

(CBS)

Speaking to members of AARP, the advocacy group for senior citizens, President Obama said today that Medicare benefits could be at risk without reform.

"We all know right now we've got a problem that threatens Medicare and our entire health care system," the president said. "Unless we act, within a decade, the Medicare trust fund will be in the red."

AARP members from across the country told Mr. Obama in a tele-town hall meeting that they were concerned about cuts to Medicare, as well as "rationing" that would keep older patients from getting elective care. Mr. Obama said that while reforming the health care system now will avoid cuts to Medicare, that would not be case in a decade from now if the satus quo were left in place. As health care costs rise, Congress would have to make decisions -- based on politics -- about what to potentially cut from Medicare.

"We can avoid that scenario by starting to make good decisions now," he said.

No one is currently suggesting reducing Medicare benefits, the president stressed.

"If it works, we don't want to change it," he said. "What we do want is to eliminate some of the waste being paid for out of the Medicare trust fund."

Mr. Obama pointed out that the federal government gives insurance companies $177 billion in subsidies to participate in Medicare Advantage, which allows Medicare beneficiaries to receive coverage from private insurers instead of the original, government-run Medicare plan. If insurance companies can offer competitive, quality packages to customers -- without subsidies -- they are welcome to do so, the president said.

"That's the kind of change we want to see," he said.

Mr. Obama also highlighted the plan to relieve the burden of high prescription drug costs for seniors by closing the "doughnut hole" in Medicare Part D. He also said reform would put more focus on prevention and wellness efforts and incentivizing quality of care rather than quantity.

"That's what health care reform will mean to folks on Medicare," he said.

The president also addressed a question from a woman concerned that current health care reform legislation under consideration would require Medicare recipients to decide how they want to die.

"Nobody's going to be forcing you to be making decisions on end of life care," the president said.

Instead, a provision in the House of Representatives' health care bill would provide for end of life care advice and counseling through Medicare.