Complaints about Medicare Advantage Mount…While Congress Contemplates Slashing Fees Traditional Medicare Pays Docs

Recently I argued that eliminating the private insurance industry would not suddenly make health care affordable. But this is no reason to gratuitously overpay private insurers to provide health care to Medicare patients—while simultaneously planning to slash the fees that Medicare pays physicians.

Begin with the insurers. When Congress created Medicare Advantage, the program that allows private insurers to offer Medicare to seniors, it agreed to pay for-profit insurers about 12 percent more per patient than traditional Medicare would spend if it were covering those patients directly.  Add up those extra payments and they amount to a $16-billion-a-year subsidy for the health insurance industry.

Why the sweetener?  Lobbyists argued that the government would have to pay more to persuade for-profit insurers to join the Advantage program.  Moreover, they promised that the insurers would use the $16 billion to offer patients extra benefits like acupuncture and eye exams that they would not receive under traditional Medicare.  And Congress agreed. Now, think about this for a minute: legislators agreed to use our tax dollars to help for-profit insurers draw customers away from a government program that most people liked—and that cost taxpayers less.  This is not about saving money by transferring Medicare to the supposedly more efficient private sector. This is about the conservative agenda: some politicians are determined to try to outsource government to for-profit corporations.

Predictably, private insurers structured their plans to siphon off the healthiest seniors.  In New York City, for example, Oxford included free memberships to some pretty posh gyms as part of the package. They called it the “Silver Sneakers” program. Unfortunately, a year after seniors signed up they discovered that the number of gyms involved in the program had suddenly shrunk. The options that remained weren’t nearly as tony, and most were no longer located in upper-middle-class residential neighborhoods. Is this “bait-and-switch”? You decide.

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UnitedHealth Care vs. the Kids

Wednesday night, the House voted 225–209 to pass a bill that would, in the words of a Wall Street Journal editorial, “steal nearly $50 billion from Medicare Advantage, the innovative attempt to bring private competition to senior health care” in order to beef up the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a program that delivers health care to poor children.

SCHIP is scheduled to expire September 30; the House bill would renew the program while expanding it to include another 5.1 million children at a cost of an extra $50 billion over five years. The bill’s backers propose to fund the legislation by increasing the federal cigarette tax by 45 cents while simultaneously paring the premium that Medicare pays private insurers who provide Medicare to seniors. The goal of the bill, reformers say, is to ensure that all children in the United States have health insurance. The Wall Street Journal’s editors see things otherwise: “Democrats apparently want to starve any private option for Medicare,” the editorial concluded.

Rupert Murdoch hasn’t yet weighed in, so I decided to take a look at the proposal. Would the legislation really make it impossible for private sector insurers to continue to offer needed benefits to seniors?
I began by looking at insurers’ finances only to discover that the health care insurance industry is, in fact, facing rough weather ahead. While the cost of providing health care continues to climb, more and more employers are backing away from providing health care benefits for their employees. Others are raising premiums and co-pays to a point that some workers can’t afford to participate in the plans. This means that insurers are losing customers.

As a result, one might expect that insurers’ profits would be falling. One would be wrong

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