Congressional Panel Looks Over Medicare

Published in Woonsocket Call on March 20, 2016

Last Wednesday’s hearing of House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee signals the panel’s interest to bring Medicare, a federal health insurance program for people age 65 and over, into the 21st century to meet the needs of its current 55.3 million beneficiaries.

At the March 16 hearing, Chairman Pat Tiberi (R-OH), stated that “Today’s seniors [are] inundated with an array of confusing deductibles, coinsurance and copayments with no protection from high health care costs unless they enroll in a private plan. Despite major improvements and innovations in the health care sector that have transformed how care is delivered, traditional Medicare has barreled through the last 50 years on the same trajectory of increased costs and little innovation.”

In addition to the structural challenges facing the program, critical parts of Medicare are expected to run out of money by 2026. In other words, the benefits Americans were promised stand to disappear if policymakers don’t act soon, says Tiberi.

Putting the Spotlight on Medicare

Tiberi’s March 16 Health Panel hearing, entitled “Preserving and Strengthening Medicare,” held in room 1100 of the Longworth House Office Building, brought together three witnesses to discuss ways to sustain the nation’s Medicare program and to keep it from going bankrupt. From both sides of the aisle and expert witnesses all agreed that the federal government’s current approach to delivering high-quality health care is not working. As a result of an outdated Medicare program and harmful Obamacare policies, today’s seniors “must navigate a disjointed program, face rising health care costs, and have fewer healthcare choices,” says the GOP panel chairman.

“Of federal entitlements, Medicare presents the most difficult challenges,” says Heritage Foundation Senior Fellow Robert Moffit, warning that the Trust Fund “faces insolvency in 2026.”

At the hearing, Moffit gave his fix for revamping Medicare that have bipartisan support and promise to shore up the ailing entitlement program. He called for the Medicare program to be simplified by combining Parts A and B – including catastrophic coverage, an out-of-pocket cap, a single deductible, and uniform coinsurance in a single plan along with bringing reforms to Medigap coverage. Also, retargeting Medicare benefits to low-income enrollees can provide assistance to lower-income enrollees. Increasing Medicare’s eligibility age to 67 (the same eligibility age for Social Security) along with encouraging innovation and cultivating competition through Premium Support can put the brakes to rising program costs.

When it comes to simplifying Medicare and incorporating catastrophic coverage, Tiberi had called the need for reform a “no-brainer.” Moffitt overwhelmingly agreed, stating, “It is a no-brainer. It is absolutely a no-brainer … [seniors] do not have protection from the most important thing that health insurance should deliver, which is that ultimate protection.”

As Moffit explained, the lack of catastrophic coverage in Medicare not only puts financial strain on the beneficiary, but it also causes a significant increase in unnecessary health care spending.

Coming Up with a Commonsense Approach

In her testimony, Katherine Baicker, Harvard University Professor of Health Economic and serves on the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, also called for commonsense solutions, specifically focused on the need for increased competition. She heighten the role that Medicare Advantage program plays in promoting innovation, as well as providing more seniors flexibility, choice, and quality at an affordable cost.

Baicker emphasized, “A thriving and competitive Medicare Advantage program can be a vital contributor to high quality beneficiary care in a sustainable health care system.”

When Baicker was asked which Obamacare provisions Congress should work to immediately repeal in an effort to protect Medicare Advantage, she replied, “I would like to see the cap on quality bonuses removed … and removing the double bonus for quality so that you’re appropriately rewarding plans for delivering the high-quality care that beneficiaries are seeking out.”

Finally, Stuart Guterman, senior scholar in residence at
AcademyHealth, told the panel that he believes the nation’s largest purchaser of health care can do more to ratchet up quality, enhance quality and coordinate care and control costs. “Because of Medicare’s unique position, it can be an important testing ground for cost and quality innovations. Policies have been put in place that encourage such development, including the expanding the power of the Secretary of Health and Human Services to put pilot programs on a ‘fast track’ and to work with private payers and providers to establish multi-payer initiatives.”

At the conclusion of the two hour hearing, like Baicker, Tiberi stressed the importance of bolstering support for Medicare Advantage, which serves approximately one-third of seniors today. Obamacare cut billions of dollars from Medicare Advantage and redirected those resources toward a one-size-fits-all, Washington-run entitlement, he says.

Tiberi also noted, “If we continue to berate a system that has been widely successful…I don’t think that’s a really good way to try to figure out how we bester serve patients, seniors, in a more cost-effective value-added, comprehensive way.”

Watching from the Sidelines

But, one aging group expressed strong concerns about the Health Panel’s look at Medicare. In his released statement, Max Richtman, President/CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security Medicare (NCPSSM), viewed the Health Panel hearing as “an Orwellian political exercise in which politicians say preserve when they actually mean privatize, and strengthen when they mean slash.”

“Republicans in the House envision a future in which millions of seniors will lose their guaranteed Medicare benefits in favor of a privatized CouponCare system in which they receive a government coupon to try and buy private insurance. Millions of seniors in Medicaid will lose their benefits due to block-granting to states without providing the resources to pay for it. The repeal of the Affordable Care Act will leave tens of millions without insurance and strip benefits from seniors in Medicare,” says Richtman in NCPSSM’s statement.

Furthermore, “The Republican leadership has offered no plans to improve benefits in Medicare or make reforms to reign in the skyrocketing price of drugs and healthcare costs system wide. Instead, the GOP vision for seniors in Medicare is they must just do more with less. Stagnant wages are grinding away at the middle class’s ability to save for retirement. Many employers have significantly scaled back or eliminated the traditional retirement benefits offered to their employees. As a result, current and future retirees simply cannot afford proposals to cut benefits, raise the eligibility age or privatize the program,” says in the NCPSSM statement.

Finally, the aging advocate warns that the GOP majority on the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee majority is moving to replace the nation’s traditional Medicare program in favor of a fully privatized system, and the GOP controlled House is in the process of producing a budget that would do just that.

A Democratic or Republican President? Which political party controls the House and Senate? When the dust settles these answered questions may result in a restructuring of the Medicare program, that may either be strengthened and expanded or put on the budgetary chopping block by the new incoming President or Congress. It’s a no brainer…Sitting on the political sideline will ultimately be detrimental to your pocketbook and coverage you receive for your health care.

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