Millions of seniors in popular private insurance plans offered through Medicare will be getting a reprieve from some of the most controversial cuts in President Obama's health-care law.
WASHINGTON — Millions of seniors in popular private insurance plans offered through Medicare will be getting a reprieve from some of the most controversial cuts in President Obama’s health-care law.
In a policy shift critics see as political, the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) awarded quality bonuses to hundreds of Medicare Advantage plans rated merely average.
The $6.7 billion infusion could head off service cuts that would have been a headache for Obama and Democrats in next year’s elections for the White House and Congress. More than half of the roughly 11 million Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans rated average.
The insurance industry says the bonuses will turn what would have averaged out as a net loss for the plans in 2012 into a slight increase.
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In a recent letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, two prominent GOP lawmakers questioned what they termed the administration’s “newfound support” for Medicare Advantage.
The shift “may represent a thinly veiled use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes,” wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan. Camp chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Medicare. Hatch is his counterpart as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
The administration says the reason for the bonuses is quality improvement, not politics, and the program will be evaluated as it goes along.
Medicare covers seniors and disabled people. About one-fourth are signed up in Medicare Advantage plans that offer lower out-of-pocket costs and more comprehensive benefits than the traditional program. Some of the heaviest enrollment is in politically contested states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado.
The health-care law cut $145 billion over 10 years from Medicare Advantage, partly to correct a widely acknowledged problem with overpayments to the plans. Those cuts start modestly in 2012 and grow. Insurers were expected to shift the burden to beneficiaries in the form of fewer services and higher out-of-pocket costs, causing a return to traditional Medicare.
“The net result is that the boat didn’t get rocked,” said independent analyst Dan Mendelson, president of the information firm Avalere Health. But he also said he agrees with the administration that the new money will get more plans thinking about how to improve quality. “They are giving the plans training wheels to improve their quality,” he said.
The HHS decision means four of five Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans now eligible for a bonus. Under the tougher approach in the health-care law, one in four would have been in plans getting the extra payments.
HHS’ nearly $7 billion bonus program is temporary. In 2015, the cuts called for in the health-care law will kick in again.