Joe Lieberman and his Medicare Gift

The press needs to untie the bow—and quickly

By Trudy Lieberman
Columbia Journalism Review, July 11, 2011

Leave it to Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman to speed along the process of making seniors on Medicare pay more for their care—the cost control method of choice at the moment, since it doesn’t disturb the profits of major stakeholders. After all, it was Lieberman who sealed the death warrant for the public option during the health reform debate. So the legislation he has proposed along with Senator Tom Coburn is consistent with his political MO. Lieberman’s proposal along with others like it may well slip into the bill, authorizing an increase in the debt ceiling with nary a word from the seniors who depend on the program. It would be grand if they knew what was afoot.

The plan is deceptively referred to as “Medicare benefit simplification,” says Joe Baker, who heads the Medicare Rights Center, a New York City advocacy group. “What they are proposing is not simplifying the benefit to help consumers but to save the federal government money, and they do that by increasing costs to consumers and providing a disincentive to use medical services.” Lieberman et al want to create a single deductible of $550 for all Medicare services, replacing the separate hospital deductible—this year $1132—and the separate medical deductible of $162. They also want to cap out-of-pocket spending for people with low to middling incomes at $7500.

Those with higher incomes would have to pay more out-of-pocket in a further effort to means-test the program. There’s already some means testing in Medicare, but Lieberman’s proposal would add more. For example, under his plan, people with an income of $85,000 would have to pay $12,500 out-of-pocket, or about 15 percent of their income before collecting benefits. Experts have long feared that as those with higher incomes pay more, they will lose their support for the program and opt out for private market coverage—thus weakening Medicare’s risk pool, which makes it possible to insure sick people in their old age.

Baker says a lower, combined deductible is not a good idea. It would raise out-of-pocket costs for millions of beneficiaries who don’t use hospital services during the year. But nearly all seniors go to the doctor, often several times a year, and Lieberman’s plan would require them to pay a $550 deductible instead of the $162 deductible they pay now for physician services. Under current law, they also pay 20 percent of the bills for doctor services, but Medigap policies, the popular ones at least, cover that amount.

That brings up another goal of Lieberman’s plan—to reduce the amount of coverage Medigap insurance can provide. His plan would forbid Medigap policies, which are owned by some ten million seniors, from paying that deductible. All Medigap policies now cover the hospital deductible, and two of them—Plans F and C—cover the medical deductible. Two-thirds of seniors who have Medigaps buy these plans because they want to reduce their risk of out-of-pocket expenses. Over the last few years, under the guise of consumer choice, Congress has authorized insurers to sell new Medigap plans that cost less but don’t cover as many of the holes. Guess what? Older people don’t seem to buy them. “Seniors are very risk averse,” says Bonnie Burns, a policy specialist with California Health Advocates.

It’s worth noting that Congress also pulled a fast one during the health reform debate. It slipped into the law a provision that will make seniors who buy Plans C and F assume more costs for their medical services. The law calls on the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to draft rules that would make seniors who choose Plans C and F pay a greater percentage of the Part B coinsurance. So, for example, instead of policies paying the entire 20 percent coinsurance as they now do, they may cover only a fraction of it. Campaign Desk has repeatedly noted that the pols haven’t been eager to promote this, but there has been little press interest, too.

Under Lieberman’s bill, Medigap policies could cover only half of a senior’s out-of-pocket costs up to the $7500. In other words, they would have to pay $3750 right off the bat before any insurance would be allowed to kick in. And if they have an existing Medigap plan that does pay those costs, the government would slap them with an excise tax. One couple I know now pays $3720 for two Medigap policies that covers each of them and pays for everything. They would have to pay the tax, drop their policies, and each cough up the first $3750 to pay expenses, plus a premium for the new policy and a higher Medicare premium for Part B, which covers doctor services and hospital outpatient care. Lieberman’s plan would raise that, too.

Making people pay a lot more is precisely what Lieberman and other pols want. He cites studies showing that when people have to pay more for their care, they will use less of it, and claims his proposal will reduce the debt and “save more than $600 billion over 10 years.” In his press release he says: “We can only save Medicare if we change it. Our plan contains some strong medicine but that’s what it will take to keep Medicare alive.”

What will it take to keep seniors alive? That’s a good question for the press to explore. Half have annual incomes under $22,000, and the median income for older women on Social Security is only about $15,000. A recent RAND study, also missed by the press,found consumers with high-deductible insurance and lots of cost sharing did economize on going to the doctor even for preventive care covered by their policies.

“This has a perverse effect,” says Burns. “The older you are the more likely you’ll pay those high out-of-pocket expenses. They would hit women the hardest and shift more of them into Medicaid.” Given that states are having trouble paying for Medicaid and there’s talk of cutting the feds’ contribution through block grants, it’s fair to ask how will these women pay for their care. It’s also fair to ask how they will pay for it if proposed changes in Social Security’s cost-of-living formula now discussed as part of the deficit reduction package, become law. COLA changes are likely to result in smaller increases for many. Folks, this is really about the kitchen table connection.