The fund Medicare uses to pay hospitals will run out in the next 15 years, and experts say there are no easy answers to solve it.
The independent Board of Trustees for Medicare found the trust fund used for Medicare payments to hospitals would become insolvent in 2030 unless something is done. The board issued its annual report to Congress on the entitlement program's finances on Wednesday.
As in prior years, the trustees found that the fund isn't properly financed over the next decade. Last year's report also pegged 2030 as the date the fund will become insolvent.
However, the fund could run dry as early as 2022 if spending is higher than estimated, the report said.
The fund covers hospital insurance benefits. It doesn't affect Medicare Part B, which covers payments to physicians, or Medicare Part C, which is commonly known as Medicare Advantage.
The verdict is still out on how to solve the problem, said Juliette Cubanski, associate director of Medicare policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation.
One answer to increase funding is to raise payroll taxes, she said.
The insolvency of the trust fund basically means Medicare payments will be higher than the money coming in, "which is basically the payroll tax for Part A," she said.
But raising taxes is not the "easiest thing to do in the current political environment," Cubanski conceded.
The report exuded a sense of urgency for Congress and the Obama administration to get together and find a solution. "The sooner solutions are enacted, the more flexible and gradual they can be," the trustees said.
Whether that can happen is another story. After the report was released, some Republicans blamed Obamacare for the problem.
"Rather than ignoring the problem and raiding Medicare to pay for the president's health care law, we need a willing partner in Washington to take thoughtful and prompt steps forward in strengthening the program," said a statement from Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Joe Pitts, R-Pa. Upton is head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and Pitts leads the panel's health subcommittee.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., countered that it is Republicans who have contributed to the problem.
"Instead of trying relentlessly and irresponsibly to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Republicans should work with Democrats to make sure that Medicare is protected for the next generation," said the House minority whip.
But some lawmakers pointed to the year's biggest bipartisan success as evidence that they can find a solution. The two parties permanently repealed an unsustainable Medicare payment formula for physicians and reauthorized a children's insurance program.
"Reforming the way Medicare pays local doctors has had positive effects for our nation's seniors, providers and the program itself," said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's health subcommittee. "Now we must take the next step and pursue other important payment system reforms."