Agency Staffing Could Hinder Response to Medicare Questions
The Social Security Administration -- which is responsible for determining and assessing income-based Medicare Part B premiums that take effect for fiscal year 2007 -- has staffing problems that might limit its ability to field questions from beneficiaries, according to the Government Accountability Office, the Washington Post reports (Barr, Washington Post, 11/22).
Higher-income Medicare beneficiaries in 2007 for the first time will be required to pay higher Part B premiums, a change that is projected to increase federal revenue by about $20.8 billion from 2007 through 2016. The higher premiums, which will be phased in over three years, will affect about 1.2 million beneficiaries in 2007 and 2.8 million by 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Individual beneficiaries with adjusted gross annual incomes of $80,000 to $100,000 will pay a surcharge of 13.3%, or about $13 per month, for a total monthly premium of about $111.50. For individual beneficiaries with adjusted gross annual incomes of more than $200,000, the surcharge will be 73.3%, or about $72 per month, for a total monthly premium of about $170.50 (California Healthline, 9/11).
SSA began mailing notices about the changes Monday. Beneficiaries may request that SSA recalculate their premium if they believe the original figures are incorrect or if they recently have experienced an income reduction because of a spouse's death, a divorce or other "life-changing event."
GAO last week sent a letter to the Senate Finance Committee "warn[ing] that Social Security is coping with staff shortages and operating under a hiring freeze just as the agency's workload is expected to jump because of the premium increases," the Post reports.
SSA is under a hiring freeze because Congress has not completed the agency's FY 2007 appropriations bill and is unlikely to do so until next year. Moreover, SSA officials have called for a reversal of proposed budget cuts and have warned that workers might be sent home without pay for as many as 10 days next year if the appropriations bill is not changed.
SSA spokesperson Mark Lassiter "expressed confidence that the agency's 1,300 field offices will be able to handle any surge in work" resulting from the new Medicare premiums, the Post reports. Workloads might be shifted if the agency determines that some field offices are "getting disproportionately hit," Lassiter said (Washington Post, 11/22).