Can Congress keep its promises on Medicare?

By RONALD M. DAVIS and WILLIAM D. NOVELLI
http://www.kansascity.com

The promise and hope of Medicare has always been that older Americans and the disabled would have high-quality, affordable health-care coverage.

But that promise is quickly eroding for the more than 1.2 million Medicare patients in Kansas and Missouri.

Over the next two years, the government will slash Medicare physician payments 15 percent. Sixty percent of physicians say they will be forced to limit the number of new Medicare patients they can treat if the first Medicare cut occurs next year.

In addition, Medicare premiums continue to skyrocket, having doubled since 2000. This is surely disturbing news for patients who rely on Medicare.

Older Americans are already beginning to feel the effect of Medicare’s current physician payment rates, which are now at 2001 levels. About 25 percent of Medicare patients seeking a new primary-care physician already have problems finding one, according to the commission that advises Congress on Medicare, MedPAC.

Couple that with a government-predicted shortage of 85,000 physicians by 2020 and the first wave of baby boomers turning 65 in three short years, and the future for Medicare patients access to care is bleak unless we take concrete steps to turn the tide.

AARP and the American Medical Association — the nations largest organizations for people 50-plus and physicians have joined forces to support these initiatives:

    Congressional action to halt the next two years of Medicare cuts to doctors.

    Updated payments to help cover increasing practice costs.

    A limit on premium increases for seniors.

    Help for low-income seniors struggling with out-of-pocket health-care costs.

To help low-income seniors with their health-care and prescription drug costs, Congress should also raise asset-test limits to stop penalizing low-income savers. The House has already acted, and now the Senate must, too.

For Congress to take these important and necessary actions without putting the burden on the backs of Medicare patients, the House voted to level the playing field between payments to private health plans under Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare.

With Medicare Advantage plans paying more than traditional Medicare — and only covering one in five Medicare patients the private insurance industry is reaping a $54 billion subsidy.

That money comes from the pockets of taxpayers and adds to already high Medicare premium increases. When the insurance companies started offering Medicare Advantage plans, they promised that managed care would help save money. Instead, they’re collecting windfalls at the expense of every American.

Restoring the balance will make it possible for Congress to stop cuts to doctors who care for Medicare patients and to add important new benefits like more preventive care and help for low-income Medicare patients all without raising Medicare premiums. Yet to date, some senators have resisted eliminating the excess payments to the insurance industry.

Older Americans are relying on Congress to act now so that they can get the medical care they need. If Congress fails to act, Medicare patients will pay the price with reduced access to health care and continued higher premiums. Military families whose government health care is tied to Medicare payment rates will also suffer.

In fact, we should all be worried about Medicare’s ability to keep its promises.

The Senate has a choice: Keep its long-term commitment to keep Medicare strong for Americans, or keep over-subsidizing big insurance. Seems like an easy choice to us.

Ronald M. Davis is the president of American Medical Association. William D. Novelli is the chief executive officer of AARP.

Editor’s Note: This originally appeared on kansascity.com. They moved or deleted it. We will keep it on CG’s website for archiving reasons.