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Get started on Medicare; Deadline on debt ceiling offers chance to begin fixing troubled program

Deficit negotiators in Washington are getting some useful assistance from a nonpartisan panel of experts that advises lawmakers on Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for those over 65. Washington needs to pay attention.

As most people surely know by now, Medicare is facing serious trouble. As baby boomers turn 65 in increasing numbers, the program's finances are on track to crater. The latest numbers show it running out of money by 2024.

The time to fix it is now. With friends of the program -- Democrats -- controlling the White House and Senate and its critics -- Republicans -- ruling the House of Representatives, Americans who value the program may have their best chance to come up with a solution that protects their health while also acknowledging the hard facts of arithmetic.

The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission has suggested several actions that could produce billions of dollars in savings through such strategies as revamping outdated co-payments and deductibles, which would also provide better protections against catastrophic expenses. Another idea is to shift nearly 9 million high-cost beneficiaries with both Medicare and Medicaid coverage into managed-care insurance plans to better coordinate services and eliminate duplication.

There is some urgency in the matter, as Vice President Joe Biden seeks savings that both Democrats and Republicans will support in a deal to increase the nation's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. Without that agreement, the nation could default on its debts, threatening to undermine the country's still-frail economy.

The current crop of Republicans would just as soon scrap Medicare and turn it into a voucher program, while Democrats, were it up to them, would continue whistling past the graveyard. Neither side is going to get what it wants and that, in the end, may be good for the country. Medicare has to be reformed but the interests of tens of millions of the program's users -- or soon-to-be users -- also must be protected.

Were it not for the problem of the debt ceiling, it would be hard to envision Washington acting on this before the inauguration of the next president. Medicare is a political live wire -- just ask Jane Corwin, who is still an assemblywoman instead of a member of Congress -- and few elected officials have the nerve to grab it as an election season heats up.

But Americans also value honesty and straightforwardness and, as has been repeatedly shown, they don't trust Republicans to fix Medicare or Social Security on their own. That's why this is the moment to act -- on both programs, since Social Security's finances also need to be strengthened. There is no telling today how next year's elections will shake out, and if action is difficult this year, it will be all but impossible in 2012.

Biden, the leaders of both legislative chambers and President Obama need to carefully consider the commission's recommendations and take the necessary steps to protect Medicare, the seniors who depend upon it and the nation's economic well-being.

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