By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — What you paid in Medicare taxes shows up on your W-2 income tax form every year. So when you retire, you want your money's worth.
That's how most Americans see it. In an Associated Press-GfK poll nearly 6 out of 10 people said they paid into the system so they deserve their full benefits — no cuts.
But a newly updated financial analysis shows that what people paid into the system doesn't come close to covering the full value of the medical care they can expect to receive as retirees.
Consider an average-wage, two-earner couple together earning $89,000 a year. Upon retiring in 2011, they would have paid $114,000 in Medicare payroll taxes during their careers.
But they can expect to receive medical services — from prescriptions to hospital care — worth $355,000, or about three times what they put in.
The estimates by economists Eugene Steuerle and Stephanie Rennane of the Urban Institute think tank illustrate the huge disconnect between widely-held perceptions and the numbers behind Medicare's shaky financing. Although Americans are worried about Medicare's long-term solvency, few realize the size of the gap.
"The fact that you put money into the system doesn't mean it's there waiting for you to collect," said Steuerle.
By comparison, Social Security taxes and expected benefits come closer to balancing out.
The same hypothetical couple retiring in 2011 will have paid $614,000 in Social Security taxes, and can expect to collect $555,000 in benefits. They will have paid about 10% more into the system than they're likely to get back.
Updated periodically, the Urban Institute estimates are part of an effort that Steuerle and others began several years ago to try to illustrate the complicated finances of Medicare and Social Security in a format the average taxpayer could grasp. The Washington-based institute is a public policy center that focuses heavily on budget and economic issues. Its analysis is accepted among other policy experts in Washington, including economists in government.