Proposed Budget Seeks to Reduce Dramatic Rise in Part B Costs: Advocates Remain Concerned About Underlying Causes
If Congress and the Administration truly seek ways to limit Medicare premiums and deductibles (Robert Pear, 10/6/2015, and 10/15/2015), they ought to look at the Medicare agency’s hospital Observation Status policy.
A major cause of the Part B increase is likely the parallel increase in so-called “outpatient” observation status. The result of this misguided policy is that unprecedented amounts of hospital care are being billed to Medicare Part B, rather than Part A. This was never intended by the law. In fact Part A is called “Hospital Insurance” in the Medicare Act. Yet, thousands of patients stay days in hospitals only to learn they were not admitted as inpatients. Instead, they are classified as outpatients on observation status. One of the myriad consequences of this policy is that Part B expenses are sky rocketing – increasing Part B premiums and deductibles and cost shifting to Medicare beneficiaries.
The 50th anniversary of Medicare has given us an opportunity to reflect on all it has accomplished to advance the health and well-being of families throughout the country. It also reminds us what could have been better – and what could still be improved.
We are thankful for the vision and fortitude of President Johnson and policy-makers in 1964 who insisted on a national program and refused its funding to segregated hospitals. We thank the 1972 Congress that added people with disabilities to those who receive Medicare coverage. We are grateful to those who expanded home health coverage in 1980 and added hospice coverage in 1982. We honor the years between 1965 and 1990 when Americans were willing to pay slightly more in payroll taxes to expand benefits. We recognize recent improvements to Medicare included in the Affordable Care Act – adding value to Part D drug coverage, new and no-cost preventive benefits to Part B, and years to the solvency of the Part A Trust Fund.
We remember the short-lived Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, which greatly added to coverage for nursing home care, added a respite benefit, and Part B drug coverage – and we regret its repeal. We are grateful for the 2006 addition of drug coverage, but regret it is only available through private plans. We appreciate all the support for Medicare and its anniversary, but regret the ever-increasing fragmenting and privatizing of the program. We are grateful for all Medicare has done to expand access to health care for older and disabled people, but fear it is becoming more oriented towards providers, insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and less focused on the needs and financial abilities of Medicare beneficiaries.
We celebrate Medicare with a renewed commitment to enhancing the well-being of older people, people with disabilities and their families. We call on those in power to honor Medicare by:
• Including a prescription drug benefit in Part B;
• Insisting on the best price for all Medicare-covered medications;
• Committing to parity between private Medicare Advantage and traditional Medicare payments;
• Adding dental, hearing aide, and vision coverage;
• Developing a long-term services and support benefit; and
• Ensuring access to a fair and accurate appeals system.
Medicare has been an incredible success. It’s our turn to ensure it continues, in more than name only, and opens doors to health care and economic security for future generations.
The Supreme Court moved the arc towards justice and fair access to health care a bit closer with its decision in King v. Burwell (6/25/2015). The 6-3 decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts, sends a clear message that the Affordable Care Act is the law of the land.
As Justice Roberts stated, the intent of the Affordable Care Act is to build up, not diminish health insurance market places. Further, basic legal process calls for statutory provisions to be read to meet the overall intent of the law. This is not legal over-reach; it’s a standard taught in first-year law school. In King v. Burwell this long-accepted legal analysis results in the Court’s conclusion that subsidies to help people pay for health insurance are available in all Affordable Care Act markets, whether they are established by the individual state or federal government.
The Supreme Court followed basic legal analysis to support a basic human right – access to health care.
Now it’s our turn to make it happen.
The Senate is poised to vote on the SGR repeal (“Doc Fix”). The Center for Medicare Advocacy has reluctantly concluded that we cannot support this bill. It will not only continue to move Medicare towards private plans and make Medicare more expensive for all, it will also jeopardize access to therapy for people with on-going conditions.
As attorneys for the national class in Jimmo v. Sebelius, we are particularly concerned about the amendment to repeal the therapy caps. We strongly support a repeal. But the repeal amendment we have seen replaces the cap with a prior authorization – a gatekeeper system that could limit access for patients, particularly those in need of on-going therapy.
Regrettably, for all these reasons, we can not support the Senate SGR bill. We hope for opportunities to improve it in the future.
We agree it’s important to find a permanent solution to the physician payment formula (“Sustainable Growth Rate” or SGR), but the Bill passed by the House of Representatives today is not the answer. It isn’t balanced. It asks too much from beneficiaries without providing enough in return. It asks nothing from pharmaceutical or insurance companies. It continues the ever-increasing privatization of Medicare by increasing costs for beneficiaries for traditional Medicare and Medigap plans. It adds unnecessary costs for the Medicare program and taxpayers.
Of the portion of the SGR costs that will be off set, roughly half (approximately $35 billion of the total $70 billion over 10 years) would come from Medicare beneficiaries through changes that will increase their out-of-pocket costs for health care, including:
• Adding deductibles to Medigap plans purchased by new Medicare beneficiaries starting in 2020;
• Further means-testing premiums for higher-income beneficiaries; and
• Overall increases in Part B premiums.
While the SGR package would make the low-income, Qualified Individual (QI), program permanent, which we strongly support, and would minimally increase and temporarily extend important funding for beneficiary education and outreach, it does not address other key issues that serve as barriers to care. For example, instead of repealing the annual outpatient therapy caps, the process to seek an exception to the cap is extended for another two years. Instead of addressing hospital Observation Status, the Bill further extends enforcement of the so-called “two-midnight” rule.
In short, Medicare beneficiaries would pay too much, with too little in return. Major drug and insurance industries pay nothing, and stand to gain a great deal. As the SGR debate moves to the Senate, we hope further balance and improvements for beneficiaries will be made.
2015 is a year of anniversaries important for all families: 50 years of Medicare. 50 years of Medicaid. 80 years of Social Security.
To honor the Medicare and Medicaid anniversaries, Senator Wyden introduced a Sense of the Senate Resolution today that should pass unanimously. It celebrates Medicare (and Medicaid) by resolving to protect a real Medicare program for future generations. Importantly, the Resolution states:
“… Resolved, That it is the sense of the Senate that—
(1) all efforts to improve Medicare and Medicaid must support and build upon President Johnson’s vision ‘‘to assure the availability of and accessibility to the best healthcare to all Americans, regardless of age or geography or economic status’’;
(2) Medicare’s guaranteed benefit is a lifeline to millions of Americans and must remain intact for this and future generations;
(3) Medicare should not be transformed into a voucher program, leaving seniors and people with disabilities vulnerable to higher out-of-pocket costs;”
Sen. Wyden’s three Medicare commitments deserve support from every lawmaker who really cares about Medicare and fair access to health coverage for all older and disabled people. That was Medicare’s promise in 1965. It’s up to us, and today’s lawmakers, to ensure it remains Medicare’s promise in 2015. We hope all members of Congress will start by committing to Sen. Wyden’s Medicare resolutions.