Ted Kaufman - United States Senator for Delaware

Delaware health: Seniors wary of changes to Medicare

Source: The News Journal

By HIRAN RATNAYAKE

December 18, 2009

Tom Duncan admits he doesn't understand what Congress is trying to do to Medicare as lawmakers overhaul the health care system.

"I pay attention to the news, I pay attention to politics, but trying to understand Medicare is a little too heavy for me," he said.

The 80-year-old Wilmington resident is willing to accept any changes simply because he has placed his faith in President Barack Obama.

"I have a great amount of respect for Mr. Obama," Duncan said. "I've been voting on the Republican ticket my whole life, but I have confidence in Obama."

Among senior citizens, though, Duncan appears to be in the minority.

Lawmakers are poised to make some of the most far-reaching changes to Medicare in the 44-year history of the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled. The Senate leadership bill under debate now would reduce the amount spent through Medicare because lawmakers see the entitlement program as a major reason why health care costs have grown so much. The Senate bill is expected to trim roughly $465.5 billion from it over the next decade.

Several other changes have been proposed and dropped, including one by Senate Democrats that would have allowed 55-year-olds without coverage to buy into Medicare.

A poll taken in November by the the Kaiser Family Foundation, a national health care think tank, found that 61 percent of seniors say they would be better off if Medicare wasn't tinkered with in any way. The poll also found that 60 percent of seniors say that the long-term financial health of Medicare would be better off if the program was left alone.

Duncan, a veteran of the Korean War, said he is more satisfied with his experience under Medicare, which he received when he turned 65, compared with the private insurance he was on when he was younger. But others at Ingleside apartments, where he lives, aren't so certain that Congress will avoid cutting their benefits.

"If it's the way it is and it's all right with us, they can't make it better," said Helen Harrison, 70. "I don't have any worries with Medicare, so I don't want them to make any changes. You can only make something so good."

While some government-run programs may have a bad reputation, Medicare -- at least among its beneficiaries -- does not.

The program helps pay medical bills for hospital care, skilled nursing care and diagnostic lab services, among other services. In 2003, Medicare was expanded to help seniors pay for prescription drugs.

But lawmakers also are seeing that Medicare -- which covers about 141,000 people in Delaware -- continues to consume more of the federal budget.

The annual costs for Medicare were $436 billion in 2007. On its current path, those costs are expected to rise to $887 billion by 2018, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

"One of the most critical parts of the reform is stabilizing Medicare, which will go bankrupt in eight years if we continue in the current system," Sen. Ted KAUFMAN, D-Del., said in a statement.

The Senate leadership projects its bill would save nearly $153 billion over the next decade by reimbursement rate cuts to providers such as hospitals and nursing homes. It projects to save another $126 billion through reforms to Medicare Advantage plans.

Nearly one in four Medicare beneficiaries has an advantage plan. They were created to do a better job at managing care and reducing costs. Sold by private insurance companies, the plans offer more services than regular Medicare plans.

A federal advisory committee has found that Medicare pays more for people enrolled in the advantage plans than regular plans, said Tricia Neuman, director of the Medicare Policy Project at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

"The plans have been seen as requiring excess payments to provide additional services, such as an eye exam or a contribution toward eyeglasses or fitness classes," she said.

Other provisions in the Senate bill call for a new board that would make recommendations to reduce Medicare spending if it overshoots its target and a provision that would use taxpayer dollars to help seniors get more help paying for prescription drugs.

Like KAUFMAN, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., supports the Medicare provisions in the Senate leadership bill, as does AARP.

"Not everybody will be happy on the issue of health care reform, especially since it is so complicated," said Kimberly Iapalucci, spokeswoman for AARP of Delaware. "Medicare beneficiaries are the most satisfied of any Americans with their coverage, so it's understandable that the prospect of change can create discomfort. However, the House and Senate bills aim to strengthen Medicare and access to physicians."

Tom Curlett, 60, who also lives at Ingleside, has been on Medicare for several years because of a disability. He said he understands the federal government wants to cover more of the uninsured. He's just fearful that their actions will hurt people like him.

"Do I trust the government? No, I don't," he said. "I would hope Obama would not hurt the senior citizens and I don't know how much is going to get better with changes to Medicare."

Ann Kelly, 93, also doesn't want to see any changes. But she's pragmatic about it.

"Whatever they do, I'll have to work with it," she said.

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