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Crying wolf?

“Anywhere between five and the next 12 years, Medicare as we know it will go bankrupt.” — U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., appearing on Meet the Press, 5-1-2011

Hmm, that sounds familiar….

Chicago Tribune July 2, 1969: The Medicare hospital trust fund faces bankruptcy by 1976 and taxes must either be raised or benefi ts reduced the senate finance committee was told today.

New York Times July 7, 1981: Medicare payroll taxes already imposed by Congress, including two increases scheduled for 1985 and 1986, will only be able to keep the hospital insurance system solvent for eight to 10 more years, three Cabinet officers informed Congress. Even under the Reagan Administration’s highly optimistic economic projections, the fund will be bankrupt before 2000, the three said.

Washington Post, March 6, 1983: Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici warned the nation’s governors the other day, “Medicare can be bankrupt in 2 1/2 years,” unless some way is found to put the brakes on its burgeoning costs.

Chicago Tribune: June 25, 1983: Medicare is in danger of bankruptcy as early as 1986, the system’s trustees declared Friday.

Chicago Tribune, March 10 1984: To avert Medicare’s expected insolvency, a federal advisory council proposed Friday raising the eligibility age to 67, taxing employer paid health insurance benefits and boosting the tax on alcohol and tobacco … the Congressional Budget Office said Medicare may be insolvent in 1989.

New York Times, January 20, 1985: In the last few years, when it appeared that the Medicare trust fund would run out of money in 1987-89 … But the need seemed less urgent after the Congressional Budget Office issued new estimates last September indicating that the Medicare trust fund would not go bankrupt until 1994.

Chicago Tribune February 6, 1985: Medicare is still expected to go bankrupt in 1991, and a new flood of red tape is not helping America’s hospitals.

New York Times, March 27, 1985: Reagan Administration officials said tonight that new projections showed the Medicare trust fund would not go bankrupt until late in 1990’s.

Chicago Tribune, Nov. 17 1985: Last spring, the government estimated that the Medicare trust fund would run out of money by 1998. Given less optimistic assumptions about the economy, it could happen as soon as 1992.

Washington Post, April 1, 1986: The Medicare hospital insurance program faces bankruptcy by 1996, two years earlier than projected last year.

Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1986: Dr. Jerald Schenken of Omaha, an AMA trustee, said the doctors have worked for more than two years on formulating the plan, because they fear the current Medicare system will go bankrupt by the end of the century.

New York Times, May 22, 1988: Reflecting the view of the Reagan Administration, Dr. William L. Roper, the head of the Federal Medicare and Medicaid agency, said, ‘’With the Medicare Trust Fund expected to go insolvent shortly after 2000, it is hard for us to sign on for a major expansion of the Medicare program beyond the catastrophic care bill.’’

New York Times, January 22, 1989: The fund that pays all Government reimbursement for hospital care of Medicare patients is projected to become insolvent in the next decade or so.

Washington Post May 4, 1990: Control of health costs is considered by many experts to be the number one health problem in the United States. Such costs are expected to bankrupt Medicare by the year 2003.

Washington Post December 13, 1994: The trust fund that finances Medicare is projected to become insolvent in the year 2001.

Los Angeles Times May 31, 1995: For weeks, Republicans have been talking about a report that warns that Medicare is in danger of going bankrupt in the year 2002.

Chicago Tribune April 25, 1997: Medicare trustees said Thursday that the program providing health care to more than 38 million senior citizens is still headed for bankruptcy in 2001.

Chicago Tribune, January 7, 1999: (The National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare) was created in 1997 to deal with Medicare’s projected bankruptcy in 2008.

Dire forecasts of Medicare’s financial implosion are clearly just about as old as the program itself, making each person who tremblingly predicts it sound like the shepherd boy in the Aesop fable who cries “Wolf!” just to get attention from the villagers.

Yes, I know how that fable ends. One day, the wolf actually comes to attack the sheep and the jaded villagers ignore the boy’s alarms. And just because officials and politicians have been predicting Medicare’s imminent bankruptcy for more than 40 years doesn’t mean that one day they won’t be right.

But, more likely, we will turn the knobs and twiddle the dials in order to keep the overwhelmingly popular program solvent, but not so solvent that, between five and 12 years from now, another politicians won’t grimly inform us that it’s going under in between five and 12 years.

The news that Republican leaders in Washington were backing away from the controversial plan to “voucherize” Medicare that they’d passed in the House was no surprise — the majority of Americans are far more scared of being at the mercy of private insurance companies in their old age than they are of theoretical unsustainability that always somehow, turns into sustainability.

They should have seen that in their crystal ball, along with the 2012 campaign attack ads now being readied against House Republicans who saddled themselves with a futile, symbolic vote that made most of their constituents angry.

Remember how the Republicans hung “cap and trade” energy legislation around the necks of Democrats who voted it out of the House, even though the plan never got traction in the Senate and died?

Payback will be rich. Mark my words.

Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. This observation appears on Zorn’s blog “Change of Subject” at chicagotribune.com.

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