Plans being debated in D.C. will benefit our state’s seniors

  • By Sen. Karen Keiser and Rep. Eileen Cody
  • Wednesday, November 25, 2009 12:29pm
  • OpinionCommentary

Many senior citizens are concerned about the impact health care reform will have on them. They’ve been targeted by opponents of federal health care reform with false and misleading claims.

One fear is that reform will come at the expense of Medicare benefits or other current coverage. The fact is Medicare was created by our government more than 40 years ago out of the belief that no one should go without health care once they reach retirement age. That commitment will not change. Neither will benefits.

Current reform efforts aim to improve Medicare’s finances so it will remain viable for generations to come. If we don’t take action now to reduce fraud, abuse and insurance company overpayments, it’s estimated that by 2017 the money Medicare spends on benefits will exceed its income. Seniors would then have to pay more or they would receive fewer Medicare benefits. Health care reform legislation will improve Medicare’s finances.

Reform legislation would also help older Americans who are not enrolled in Medicare by making it illegal for insurance companies to deny coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. The bills in both chambers also require insurance companies to cover routine screenings for preventive care such as diabetes, osteoporosis and colonoscopies with no out of pocket costs. And both bills would end age discrimination by making it illegal for insurance companies to charge ridiculous rates for people just because they are older.

One of the biggest concerns for seniors on Medicare is the notorious “donut hole” in their prescription drug coverage. If passed, health care reform would fix the problem and provide brand name drugs for half the cost for those who enter the gap.

We have almost 900,000 Medicare beneficiaries in Washington state. This year, Medicare is expected to pay nearly a quarter more for the average patient in traditional Medicare in Florida than for a Medicare patient in Washington. However, the higher rate of reimbursement in Florida doesn’t result in better health outcomes. Our state has a tradition of more efficient, lower cost care that produces better outcomes. Our providers should not be punished for being efficient.

The comparison is even more striking for rural areas of Washington. Because of the low rates paid to physicians and other providers, many seniors enrolled in traditional Medicare are having trouble finding a doctor. Many physicians are only accepting Medicare Advantage patients because they receive higher payments through those arrangements.

Both the House and Senate health care reform bills include a way to “level the playing field” and create more equity in Medicare reimbursement across the country. That means our providers will be receiving a higher rate of reimbursement for Medicare when reform is implemented. And the unfair advantage of Medicare Advantage private insurance plans would be reduced.

Sen. Maria Cantwell and Rep. Jay Inslee have worked long and hard on this critical element of making health reform fair to our provider community. In addition, the restoration of scheduled cuts to Medicare reimbursements is one of the many reasons why the American Medical Association endorses health care reform.

Implementation of some of these proposed changes, such as closing the prescription “donut hole,”could begin as early as next year. Others would come into play in 2014.

The nation’s leading advocate for seniors, AARP, has endorsed the House health care reform bill because it knows the legislation would be good for all Americans. And here in Washington, a recent poll of AARP members found 68 percent of them support national health reform.

Attempts to create anxiety among seniors have been one of the more distressing elements of this year’s health reform debate. Last August notorious “death panels” were promoted, and in the next few weeks, as the final phase of the debate begins, we will no doubt see many more alarmist and misleading charges. But please don’t be misled. Both health care reform bills have tremendous benefits for seniors.

Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Kent) chairs the Senate Health &Long-Term Care Committee. Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle) chairs the House Health Care and Wellness Committee.

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