The United States faces large federal budget deficits over the short-, medium-, and long-term. Although perhaps subject to the greatest public attention, the short-term deficits are generally thought to be helping the economy recover. In contrast, medium- and long-term deficits projected for years after the economy returns to full-employment are a source of concern: these deficits will create growing and serious burdens on the economy even if they do not lead to an immediate crisis. Economists of all political stripes agree on this point.
While extending the Bush tax cuts, if that occurs, will play a big role in making the medium and long-term deficit problems worse, economists agree that a key driver of the long-term deficit problem is growth in government spending on health care. Medicare and Medicaid, our two largest health spending programs, currently account for 23 percent of federal spending, or 5.6 percent of GDP. Under current law and optimistic assumptions for health spending, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates these programs will represent 30 percent of total federal spending (6.8 percent of GDP) by 2022 and will continue to grow thereafter.
The prospect of health-driven deficits has produced a burst of proposals for reform. Sadly, the simple truth is that we do not yet know how to reform government health programs to both rein in costs and maintain or improve quality and access.