Health reform strengthens Medicare, improves access, affordability

Nov 4, 2009 Issues: Health Care

We have an opportunity to achieve health care reform that builds on what works in our current system and fixes what is broken by lowering health costs, expanding access to care, and bringing new competition and fairness to the insurance market.
Senior citizens would continue to receive coverage through Medicare just as they do today, but the reform proposal before Congress improves the program
for current and future generations.
Health care reform will lower prescription drug costs by addressing the coverage gap in the current Medicare drug benefit. The proposal phases out the “donut hole” where seniors continue paying monthly insurance fees but stop receiving coverage for their medicines.
The legislation will also put money back in the pockets of seniors by elimi
nating co-payments for preventive care. It is important to receive the right screening tests in order to identify illnesses and treat them early. Health care reform will remove the cost-sharing for preventive services such as mammography, bone density tests, glaucoma screenings, and more.
Health care reform also takes important steps to improve communication between doctors and their Medicare patients. The legislation will pay primary care doctors an added monthly fee to coordinate patients’ care with specialists, be available to patients on nights and weekends, and follow up regularly with patients. The proposal also includes a number of pilot programs to test payment systems that allow patients to receive one bill, not a dozen, when they leave the hospital, and to encourage more coordinated health care services. This will improve care and lower costs.
Unfortunately, some people have tried to convince senior citizens that health care reform will weaken Medicare. This is simply not true. The legislation saves money in Medicare, not by cutting regular Medicare benefits, but by making 
sure our dollars are used as efficiently as possible.
For example, hospitals and other medical facilities that serve Medicare patients receive annual increases in their payments to account for inflation. Hospitals have agreed that these increases may be higher than costs warrant. Under reform, Medicare payments to hospitals will continue to increase, but they will increase less quickly. This change saves $155 billion over 10 years --money that is put right back into the Medicare trust fund to extend its solvency and make the Medicare program more fiscally sound.
The reform package also reduces subsidies to private insurance companies that contract with Medicare to cover people through the Medicare Advantage program. Today, these plans are paid 14 percent more than it costs to cover a senior under regular Medicare. Taxpayers should not be footing the bill to pay private insurance companies more than it would cost to cover senior citizens under regular Medicare. Under reform, Medicare Advantage plans will continue to be able to operate and offer coverage, but they will have to compete on a level play
ing field with regular Medicare. Reducing these subsidies saves taxpayers $156 billion over 10 years.
Another falsehood is that health care reform would create a government panel to limit the amount of care seniors are given when they become terminally ill. This is not, and has never been, true. Decisions about a senior’s medical care as he or she nears the end of life will continue to be made by the patient in consultation with his or her doctor and family. What health reform does is provide coverage for seniors to talk to their doctors about advance directives and the kind of care they want to receive near the end of their life. The use of the provision is 100 percent voluntary and empowers seniors to make their own decisions and have them honored.
Health care reform will improve Medicare, just as it will improve access and affordability for families across Michigan struggling to pay bills and maintain vital health care coverage.
Rep. Sander Levin serves on the House Ways and Means committee with jurisdiction over Medicare. He represents the 12th Congressional District of Michigan, which covers parts of southern Macomb County.