March 21, 2016

Objecting To Cuts To Medicare Advantage

Guest column submitted by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo

As we continue to consider comprehensive reforms to our health care system, we should look to the highly successful Medicare Advantage (MA) program as a model of coordinated care that aligns payments with patient outcomes, rather than the number of procedures.  Any proposed changes to the MA program should encourage innovation, increase competition and expand beneficiary access to these private Medicare plans.  I recently led a bipartisan and growing group of 61 senators (8 more than signed a similar letter I led last year) in calling on the Administration to refrain from making additional harmful cuts to the successful, market-based MA program in 2017. 

The MA program offers comprehensive, high-quality health care to more than 17 million seniors and individuals with disabilitiesnationwide.  In Idaho, 1 in 3 Medicare beneficiaries have chosen a private health plan through Medicare Advantage.  Plans offered through Medicare Advantage allow beneficiaries to choose a health plan that best suits their individual budget and health needs.  These plans often offer more flexible services and additional benefits, including vision, dental and prescription drug coverage.  Additionally, this program is a successful effort to push Medicare more toward market based health care. 

Unfortunately, the Administration's repeated attempts to use the MA program as a piggy-bank to offset inefficiencies in Obamacare and traditional Medicare undermines the future stability of the program.  As part of the funding mechanism for Obamacare, the MA program faces nearly $200 billion in cuts by 2022.  Additional regulatory changes to the MA program in the 2017 notice come as companies are already attempting to implement policies established in 2014 through 2016.  Continued need for congressional oversight and improved transparency at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have never been more important.  While some changes to the program are necessary, dramatic policy changes annually threaten stability and predictability for beneficiaries. 

As home to a high percentage of seniors who utilize MA coverage, Idaho has been impacted by reductions to the program in recent years.  The Administration's cuts to the program have resulted in MA plans no longer being offered in numerous Idaho counties. 

In the letter to the CMS, my fellow senators, including Idaho Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), and I wrote, "Annual payment and policy changes create disruption and confusion among beneficiaries, especially in low-income, rural and minority populations.  Any cuts that may be proposed this year would have the potential to stifle innovation and impede beneficiary access to high quality health care."  We stressed the importance of this program in offering individuals affordable, patient-centered health care and asked that any proposed payment or policy changes promote stability and preserve plan options.  As a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee, I also joined my Republican committee colleagues in sending a follow-up letter to the CMS calling for the Administration to halt its plans to implement policy changes that reduce funding for the MA program. 

Limiting access to quality care by forcing seniors to enroll in traditional fee-for-service Medicare is a step backward.  Like all health care consumers, MA beneficiaries should be free to select the health care plan that best fits their medical and financial situation.  Payment and policy changes that result in increased out-of-pocket costs, fewer coverage options, reduced benefits and cancelled plans for seniors must be rejected. 

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