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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 27, 2009

Retiring at older age saves Medicare

By Samuel Wilder King II and Jason Kerwin

The year is 2080. Half of the entire American Gross Domestic Product is dedicated to Social Security and Medicare, and interest on debt to finance those programs.

Then a financial crisis drives the U.S. government bankrupt. The government's inability to fund Medicare and Social Security leaves millions of senior citizens with no means of support and no backup plans. Without fundamental changes, this will be America's future. While health care reform is vital, President Obama and Congress are ignoring the critical point that even if health care costs go down, Social Security and Medicare will still be unsustainable.

When Social Security began in 1935, someone who lived to 65 expected to live to 77. Today, that person would live to 83. Medicare was created in 1965 as part of Social Security legislation, so it used the same minimum age. The Social Security retirement age has increased by just two years in the past seven decades, and Medicare still starts at age 65.

What makes this a problem is the huge number of people approaching retirement. Baby Boomers did not have as many children as their parents, and their children had even fewer, so each year the number of workers supporting each person on benefits drops.

The best option to keep these programs viable is to increase the eligibility age by one month for every three calendar months without increasing benefit payouts starting now. This is a simple solution that requires no new government bureaucracy. We should continue this increase until the average person receives benefits for 12 years, just as they did in 1935. Today, that would mean a retirement age of 76. This will decrease costs and increase the number of people paying money into the system.

Since people live longer today, retirements should start later. Doing it gradually allows people to adjust their retirement plans and prevents a sudden collapse of the U.S. economy like the 2008 financial crisis.

The chart here, provided by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, shows that with current trends, spending on health care alone will ruin the country's financial position in 70 years. The black line represents projected government revenues as a percent of GDP (the total annual income of the entire country). It outlines the future we described above Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will totally consume government revenues by 2080, and total government spending will be seven tenths of GDP.

One way to estimate the savings from pushing the retirement age back is to look at how much we would have saved if it were already higher. Based on numbers provided by the Department of Health and the Kaiser Family Foundation, an eligibility age of 76 would have saved Medicare about $80 billion in 2002 out of a total cost of around $230 billion. A 2000 AARP study published in the Social Security Bulletin had similar results, estimating that increasing Medicare eligibility to 70 by 2040 would cut costs by $67.3 billion in that year. Our plan would have an eligibility age at 75 by 2040, yielding higher savings.

We also estimate that if Social Security's retirement age were 76 today we would save approximately $280 billion in 2009, out of a total of $660 billion. Moving the eligibility age upward, so that it remains in line with life expectancy over time, reduces long-run Social Security costs by as much as 40 percent and Medicare costs by up to one-third. It also increases the number of people in the workforce, further shoring up the system. Poor seniors would still be covered by Medicaid; we could implement additional programs targeting the needy without a large impact on savings.

In the end, raising the retirement age makes sense. People live longer today, which is a wonderful thing. In concert with other cost-control reforms currently being discussed, revising the retirement age upward will reduce the fiscal impact of Social Security and Medicare and help prevent their collapse. Doing it slowly will allow people to adapt their retirement plans now rather than letting them count on a system that is guaranteed to fail. Best of all, it is simple, cheap and requires no additional government bureaucracy.

Samuel Wilder King II is a a Punahou School and Georgetown University graduate. He served as a political consultant in Baghdad from March to December 2008. Read his blog at www.thekinginstitute.blogspot.com. Jason Kerwin, a Punahou School and Stanford University graduate, worked as a researcher studying cost control in Medicare. He is a doctoral student in economics at the University of Michigan. They wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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