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Medicare's hospital trust fund is projected to be depleted by 2026. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Medicare won't be able to fully pay for patients' hospital bills by 2026, a similar forecast from last year, according to the latest report from Medicare's trustees.

The bottom line: The coronavirus pandemic both drastically lowered payroll taxes that fund Medicare and stymied care that Medicare pays for. But the virus "is not expected to have a large effect on the financial status of the trust funds after 2024," the trustees said.

The big picture: The pandemic has created a tug-and-pull situation in health care, and the Medicare trustees' report epitomizes it.

  • The surge in layoffs lowered payroll taxes, which fund Medicare, and the federal government had to shoulder expenses tied to COVID-19 hospitalizations, tests and vaccines for Medicare enrollees.
  • However, "spending for non-COVID care declined significantly," the trustees wrote.
  • Like the broader industry, deferral of care more than offset COVID-19 expenses. And it's why Medicare's solvency date for hospital bills didn't change.

What to watch: Medicare's private insurance option and a pricey new drug will factor heavily into the program's finances.

  • Medicare Advantage enrollment is projected to rise drastically faster than the trustees anticipated last year. That could suck a lot more money from the hospital trust fund since Medicare Advantage plans cost more than traditional Medicare.
  • All projections did not include Aduhelm, the controversial Alzheimer's drug that Medicare is still evaluating for coverage. With a list price of $56,000 per year on average, Aduhelm could blow up Medicare's financing structure.

Go deeper

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America — Annual COVID vaccine preferable to boosters, says Pfizer CEO.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults — Beijing officials urge COVID-19 "emergency mode" before Winter Olympics.
  5. Variant tracker
Tina Reed, author of Vitals
Dec 6, 2021 - Health

Medicare's telehealth use soars

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

There were nearly 52.7 million fee-for-service telehealth visits by Medicare beneficiaries last year, up from only 840,000 in 2019, according to data released by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. That is a 63-fold jump year over year.

Between the lines: Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Connecticut had the highest use of telehealth in 2020.

Dec 9, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans' debt-deal divide

Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Several Republican senators told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell during their weekly policy lunch they disagree with the debt-limit deal he cut with Democrats, saying it puts them in a tough spot no matter how they vote, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: Some who've been refusing to help Democrats' raise the limit are against the one-time, fast-track procedural bill allowing the Senate to raise the limit with just 51 votes. That said, they support the broader package that includes delaying Medicare sequestration cuts.