Former HHS chief slams health reform as threat to Medicare

Michael Leavitt, who headed the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) under President George W. Bush, is blasting the Democrats' new health reform law as a threat to Medicare.

"The legislation has weakened the program," Leavitt wrote Friday in a Washington Post op-ed piece. "Worse, its changes create the perception of progress, making it more difficult to pursue the reforms that would put Medicare on sound financial footing so future generations of seniors will benefit."

The "perception of progress" is a reference to recent projections by Medicare's trustees that the reform law will extend the solvency of Medicare's basic hospital benefits through 2029 — 12 years longer than the trustees projected before the reform law was passed.

Still, Medicare's own actuaries have warned the savings stemming from the law can't be used simultaneously to extend Medicare's solvency and expand coverage to millions of uninsured Americans — "despite the appearance of this result from the respective accounting conventions."

It's an accounting trick that Republicans have picked up on. "The Medicare cuts can be used to improve the government's capacity to finance benefits in the future or to pay for another entitlement," Leavitt writes. "But they can't be used for both."

Leavitt, who once headed the insurance firm founded by his father, also attacked health reform's cuts to the Medicare Advantage (MA) program, under which the government pays private insurers to cover Medicare patients (at an additional cost to taxpayers). 

"That will reduce benefits for the average enrollee by $800 per year later this decade," Leavitt says.

The Republican strategy of defending Medicare is something of a new phenomenon that took off with the arrival of the Democrats' health reform bill. Indeed, former GOP Rep. Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has called the program a "centralized command bureaucracy" he hoped would "wither on the vine." 

And when President Bush proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in Medicare cuts as part of his 2009 budget proposal, Republicans cheered the move as the fiscally responsible thing to do. 

It was Leavitt, as HHS secretary, who had to defend those proposed Medicare reductions before skeptical lawmakers. Critics, Leavitt told the Ways and Means Committee in February 2008, "will see any attempt to slow the rate of Medicare’s growth as a cut."