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Medicare Mistake

Bad timing. President Clinton chose an odd moment to launch a bid to add some 20 million so-called "near elderly" Americans to the Medicare rolls.

The idea is fiscally irresponsible. It's also illogical, for several reasons:

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* Unemployment, at 4.6 percent, has reached the lowest point in a quarter century. This is not the time to lure millions of the most skilled white- and blue-collar workers to take early retirement, up to 10 years sooner than they normally would. (Mr. Clinton proposes to lower the eligibility age from 65 to 55.) Nor is the current labor shortage likely to moderate in coming decades. The nation's boomer bulge is moving toward retirement at a standard age now scheduled to inch upward from 65 to 67, as actuarial life expectancy rises.

* The Clinton administration has already recognized the need to do something about this demographic challenge. It recently appointed an expert commission to seek solutions to the budget squeeze brought on by boomer retirements and rising medical costs.

* "Downsizing" - the often cruel mustering out of workers and executives in their 50s as part of the early 1990s "leaning and meaning" of US corporations, is largely past. Unemployment statistics confirm that.

For employees laid off in late career, even those with decent severance packages, such statistics give cold comfort. Even forced retirees who found new jobs or started their own businesses may be unable to buy insurance. But the answer is not a plan that tempts millions of jobholders to clear out desks a decade early.

One approach would be to ask the Medicare reform commission to seek a limited insurance answer for just those pre-65 workers already downsized.

* Instead of expanding Medicare costs by creating a whole new category of eligibility, the federal government needs to make the existing system more efficient. Leaky cost controls and outright fraud cloud the giant program's record. Poster cases like doctors who bill for more than 24 hours worth of services in a day may be rare. But fraud in home-care billings and the latest internal report of $447 million in overpayments for drugs indicate that Medicare has much tightening still to do.

The term "near elderly" has attracted well-deserved ribbing from comedians. Before anyone is tempted to move toward a "nearly near elderly" category for 40-somethings, the White House would be wise to let this plan fade away.

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