WASHINGTON — Underscoring the urgency of the push in Washington to rein in skyrocketing health care costs, Medicare's trustees warned Tuesday that the program's biggest fund would run out of money in just eight years.
The prediction — issued in an annual report on Medicare and Social Security finances — offered the bleakest assessment of Medicare's future in years and reflects growing concerns among policy experts that the nation's health care spending is unsustainable.
"The Medicare trustees report makes clear that today there is no more important long-term fiscal policy measure than gaining control of the growth of Medicare costs by delivering health care services more efficiently," said Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. His comment echoed calls that federal officials from both parties have been making for decades.
Medicare, now in its fifth decade, provides health insurance to about 45 million people, most senior citizens.
The impending eligibility of baby boomers, who are projected to start joining Medicare in 2011, and the unrelenting rise in health care costs have heightened concerns in recent years about the program's long-term viability.
The current economic downturn, which has resulted in the elimination of millions of jobs, has further eroded Medicare.
Social Security and Medicare are financed primarily by taxes evenly divided between workers and employers that amount to 15.3 percent of wages.
The Social Security trust fund is not expected to run out of money until 2037, according to the trustees' report.
Tuesday, those pushing to overhaul the nation's health care system, including senior administration officials, pointed to the Medicare news to redouble their argument.
President Barack Obama and groups such as AARP are pushing for cuts in how much the federal government pays private insurers who contract to provide Medicare insurance for seniors. They are also pushing for faster approval of generic drugs. Both steps challenge the health care industry.
Obama and his allies on Capitol Hill are also exploring broader changes in the way that Medicare pays for services, including penalties on hospitals and doctors who don't meet new standards.