March 23, 2015

No More Shortchanging Seniors

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

I recently led a bipartisan group of 52 senators in calling on the Administration to refrain from making additional harmful cuts to the successful, market-based Medicare Advantage (MA) program.  These targeted cuts, coupled with the drastic reductions to the program under Obamacare, mean increased out-of-pocket costs, fewer coverage options, reduced benefits and, in many cases, cancelled plans for seniors.  This shortchanging of America's seniors must stop.

Medicare Advantage, which remains one of the most popular programs in Medicare, continues to be an attractive option for seniors seeking comprehensive, high-quality coverage at an affordable price.  Additionally, this program is a successful effort to push Medicare more toward market based health care.  MA offers beneficiaries the opportunity to enroll in private health plans best suited to their individual health care needs outside of the fee-for-service model of traditional Medicare.  MA plans typically include a range of innovative services and benefits not available to standard Medicare beneficiaries.  Examples of these services include vision and dental services and important prescription drug coverage, among others. 

More than 16 million seniors and individuals with disabilities, including more than 70,000 Idahoans, seek health care coverage through the MA program, and that number is growing.  Despite widespread enrollment and high rates of satisfaction from beneficiaries, the Administration, in an attempt to force seniors into one-size-fits-all traditional Medicare, has left Americans with fewer and fewer health care options.  On top of the new reductionsproposed recently, the program faces more than $200 billion in cuts in the coming years as a result of Obamacare. 

In rural areas, such as much of Idaho, MA plans are a significant part of the insurance coverage network for Medicare patients.  Idaho, which has one of the higher percentages of seniors nationwide who utilize MA coverage, has felt the impact of reductions to the program in recent years with MA plan availability decreasing dramatically.  As a result of the move by the Administration, no longer are MA plans offered in numerous counties in Idaho.  For example, in Custer County in 2013, the number of MA plans available to seniors was six.  After reductions to the program, seniors were forced to enroll in traditional fee-for-service Medicare as there was no longer an option to enroll in an MA plan for 2014-as was the case in Lemhi, Bear Lake, Butte, Clearwater, Idaho and Lewis counties.   

Further, studies have shown that additional cuts to the MA program are likely to disproportionately affect beneficiaries with low incomes-the very people the President pledged to protect.  Forty-one percent of MA enrollees have annual incomes below $20,000.  The increase in out-of-pocket expenses would constitute a significant burden to these enrollees.  

In the letterto the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, 52 of my Senate colleagues, including fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and I wrote, "At a time of broad agreement on the need to shift U.S. health care to focus on care coordination, quality and value-based payments, it would be counterproductive to jeopardize a program that is already driven and aligned toward these goals.  We urge you to provide stability to the MA program that will protect MA enrollees from disruptive changes in 2016."

Implementing additional cuts to the MA program is unreasonable, as we have seen the dramatic impact cuts are already having on beneficiaries.  This dynamic must not continue, and the President must quit contradicting his oft-repeated pledge, "if you like your plan, you can keep it."  

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