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Whiz Kid 26-Year-Old Tackles The Daunting Task Of Trying To Save Medicare

Bobby Jindal is still years from retirement age - 39 years, in fact. But the 26-year-old whiz kid now has the job of helping to save Medicare for his parents’ generation and his own.

He has some experience. When Louisiana’s state health-care program was hemorrhaging money, he wrote a 30-page paper on how to fix it. That caught the eye of the governor, who put him in charge of the cleanup.

Now Jindal is in charge of the staff for a new federal commission that begins work this week to try to keep the nation’s health-care program for the elderly from being overwhelmed by baby boomers.

“I think my father is part of that generation that has always wondered about Social Security and Medicare, about whether it’s really going to be there for them,” Jindal said in an interview Monday.

The commission, made up of lawmakers and private-sector experts, must report to Congress and President Clinton by next March, and there is consensus Congress should act swiftly on its recommendations.

“His responsibility will be enormous,” said Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif, who recruited Jindal.

Many are surprised by Jindal’s youth. People in Louisiana were, too.

But Margaret A. Dixon, president of the American Association of Retired Persons, said, “When more than one generation can be involved, we think it’s a very positive thing.”

Said Jindal of Medicare’s benefits: “If they’re only viewed as programs for the elderly, I think they’re even more vulnerable.”

The ambitious young man, whose parents emigrated from India to the United States, was born and raised in Baton Rouge, La., and planned to become a doctor.

But after a summer internship on Capitol Hill and a Rhodes scholarship, he ended up in Washington as a consultant helping companies navigate a health-care marketplace transformed by managed care.

He was about to head to Japan on a job when new Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster asked him to come home.

Jindal had read about Louisiana’s problems with its bloated health program for the poor. In his spare time, he had written an outline of possible solutions.

The paper made its way to Foster, who was impressed enough to think of offering Jindal - then only 24 years old - a high-level job at Louisiana’s Department of Health and Hospitals.

“If you want to offer me the head job, I’ll think about it,” Jindal said he told surprised advisers to the governor.

Even more surprised were state lawmakers when Foster gave Jindal the head job.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes. I said, ‘They’re going to eat him alive,”’ said Louisiana Sen. John Hainkel, who heads the state Senate Finance Committee. But, said Hainkel, “he just did a heck of a good job.”

In two years, Jindal reduced the yearly cost of Medicaid per beneficiary by $325 and put the program into a surplus. He did it largely by going after health-care providers who either were cheating Medicaid outright or getting paid more than they deserved.

Urged on by the governor, Jindal sensationalized the crackdown, even going with a TV reporter to confront clinic operators who were paying parents to send healthy children in for appointments.

The public began to think of Jindal as somebody willing to take anything on. One mother even called to complain that her son had stopped writing to her.

“I got on the phone and called him up,” recalled Jindal, who was married in October.

Some advocates for the poor, however, criticized Jindal for focusing too firmly on the bottom line.

In 1996, he eliminated a program that helped people impoverished by the expense of catastrophic illness, then touted a Medicaid budget surplus.

But Jindal also has recognized his mistakes, critics say. The catastrophic program, for example, was mostly restored.

“To his credit, I think he was surprised by the effects of some of those cutbacks, and I think he did a good job of revisiting some,” said Marcus Carson, former director of the Louisiana Health Care Campaign, an organization that advocates on behalf of people served by the state’s health programs.

Jindal acknowledges that Medicare, which provides health care for 38 million elderly Americans, has bigger problems barely dented by the most obvious solutions. Anti-fraud measures and cuts to hospitals, for example, were part of last year’s balanced budget.

But experience has left Jindal optimistic.

“So many times, it’s easy to say health care will grow by 10 percent a year and there’s nothing we can do about it unless we cut rates or raise taxes,” he said.

“I think we need to re-examine those assumptions.”

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