Sunday, December 06, 2009

Medicare tall tales

St. Petersburg Times Editorial:

Arizona Sen. John McCain should know better. So should Florida Sen. George LeMieux and Gov. Charlie Crist. They are among the politicians using tired scare tactics to build opposition to the cuts to Medicare's growth in the health care reform proposals before Congress.

Gaining control over Medicare spending is the only fiscally responsible way forward. The status quo is not sustainable, and the Senate bill would be likely to improve health care for seniors and extend the solvency of the Medicare trust fund by five years, to 2022.

When McCain ran for president, he proposed reducing Medicare spending to help pay for health reform. But last week he led the unsuccessful effort in the Senate to strip the health care reform bill of its nearly half-trillion dollars in Medicare cost controls. That would have killed the bill, since those cost savings are a large part of paying for it. But the Republican effort failed in a vote largely along party lines, with LeMieux joining all of his fellow Republicans in putting party politics above responsible policy.

Medicare is a convenient sacred cow. Republicans figure they can kill health care reform if they can scare enough senior citizens with unfounded claims that health reform will gut the entitlement and endanger their lives. Crist, who is running for the Senate, issued a news release claiming that health reform would cut or reduce "seniors' access to quality health care." And McCain is featured on robocalls warning that the Senate bill would cut "vital Medicare coverage for our seniors." On top of that, scaremongering TV ads loaded with hysterical falsehoods have been airing around the country sponsored by the 60 Plus Association, a conservative group.

The bottom line is the Senate bill would reduce Medicare's growth without impacting access to medical care. It would create an independent commission to make cost saving recommendations that Congress would either have to accept or substitute its own plan with the same level of savings. The commission would be barred from submitting proposals that would ration care, increase Medicare premiums or change benefits.

The bill benefits seniors who face the Medicare Part D doughnut hole by requiring drugmakers to cut by 50 percent the price of brand-name pharmaceuticals when the doughnut hole is hit. The bill also eliminates cost-sharing obligations for beneficiaries for most preventive services.

It is true that popular Medicare Advantage plans would have to compete on a more equal footing with traditional fee-for-service Medicare. But that change is long overdue. The government now pays on average 14 percent more for beneficiaries in these plans over traditional Medicare without better health outcomes that could justify the expense. An amendment offered by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to block the cuts in Medicare Advantage is another irresponsible attempt to undermine the viability of reform.

If seniors want to know whether health reform will benefit them they need to listen to the AARP, a strong protector of Medicare and a supporter of the reform bills. Medicare spending must be controlled or its costs will outpace our nation's ability to pay. The Senate's health care reform bill offers a reasonable attempt to reduce the program's growth and extend its financial viability.
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