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Posted On: Jun. 22, 1997 12:00 AM CST

GRADUALLY RAISING the eligibility age for Medicare to 67 from 65 is a political hot potato that we hope Congress has the guts to handle.

The Senate Finance Committee approved the higher age last week, and senior citizen groups already are on the attack, charging that delayed eligibility would take away a vital benefit for the nation's elderly population.

The higher eligibility age, however, would correspond with scheduled increases in eligibility for Social Security benefits. The full effect of this gradual increase would not occur until 2027. That gives everyone plenty of time to prepare.

Practically speaking, if full Social Security benefits aren't available, those who could not afford to pay for health care also would be unlikely to have the money to retire before 67.

Granted, employers will face higher health care costs for employees who stay on the job longer.

Nonetheless, we hope Congress approves this proposal and that President Clinton signs it.

Raising the Medicare eligibility age is not only necessary to help stave off the impending bankruptcy of Medicare-it also is good public policy.

When Medicare was enacted in 1965, the average life expectancy was just over 70. By 1995, the latest year for which such statistics are available, life expectancy had risen to about 76. With people living far longer, common sense dictates that the eligibility age for retirement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security, also should be increased. A two-year hike in the eligibility age for Medicare seems modest.

Certainly, enactment of such a proposal will cause pain for both employees and employers. But consider the alternative: doing nothing or very little to restrain Medicare costs. That would result in the collapse of Medicare, a catastrophe for the entire nation, as Medicare now pays for more than half of retirees' health care costs. Employers that offer retiree health care plans should not oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age, because Medicare shoulders half the cost of retirees' health care.

But other parts of the Medicare package are not as well thought-out. For example, we have serious misgivings about a means test in which Medicare deductibles would be linked to retirees' incomes. Frankly, we think the administrative burden-on individuals, retirees and employers-would outweigh any cost savings.

Hospitals, for example, would presumably have to do an income questionnaire each time a retiree was admitted. And employers, whose health care programs are integrated with Medicare, would face added burdens keeping track of deductibles for their retired employees.

Given all those problems, and perhaps more we aren't aware of, a means test for Medicare deductibles should be shelved.

Instead, a simple means test should be adopted: Link the amount of the Medicare Part B premium to retiree income. That is eminently fair and workable.