In her testimony before Congress last month, Kathleen M. King, Director of Health Care at the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), reported “improper payments” under the Medicare and Medicaid programs amounting to almost $70.5 billion for fiscal year 2010. According to the GAO, any payment was labeled “improper” if it “should not have been made or … was made in an incorrect amount.”

If there were any question as to the immense size of America’s entitlement programs, this piece of news should be very illuminating.

To put it in perspective, this amount is more than the combined spending for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State (excluding USAID) over the same time period.

Or consider that these “improper” payments are some 10 times the amount Congress authorized in FY 2010 for the Missile Defense Agency for activities vital to our national security.

King didn’t point fingers, and she did highlight efforts to try to reduce waste in the Medicare and Medicaid entitlement programs. But it’s hard to ignore how big this “improper” use of taxpayer dollars is. Basketball player LeBron James, who earns over $45 million a year, would have to work 1,567 years to earn that much.

To restore our nation’s fiscal health, Congress must get a handle on entitlements and make hard cuts in unnecessary programs and pork. Even the Department of Defense can find waste to cut, but those savings should be plowed back into its budget to spend on what the U.S. military needs to protect our nation. Funding defense at the appropriate level to counter the threats we face is the government’s first and foremost constitutional duty.

According to our calculations at Heritage, the yearly defense budget should average about $720 billion over the next five years. As the sheer size of the “improper” Medicare and Medicaid payments prove, such an investment in defense is not only affordable; it’s doable.
Scott Nason currently is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: