Bush Administration Calls for Renewal of Assistance Program for Low-Income Medicare Beneficiaries
The Bush administration on Friday in an e-mail to Congress said 192,000 low-income Medicare beneficiaries could face higher out-of-pocket costs next year because lawmakers have not renewed a program that subsidizes their Part B premiums, the New York Times reports.
Under the Qualifying Individuals program, the federal government pays the premiums for Medicare beneficiaries with monthly incomes between $1,097 and $1,464. The basic Part B premium will increase from $78.20 per month this year to $88.50 in January 2006, according to the Times. Part B premiums are deducted from beneficiaries' Social Security checks.
President Bush's fiscal year 2006 budget proposal recommended a one-year extension. The House and Senate passed separate bills to reinstate the program -- offsetting the $200 million annual cost by denying Medicare and Medicaid payments for erectile dysfunction drugs -- but lawmakers on Oct. 7 left for a 10-day recess without resolving differences between the bills. As a result, federal authority for the program expired Sept. 30, according to the Bush administration e-mail (Pear, New York Times, 10/16).
Officials say the QI program is "caught up in a dispute between the House and Senate over how to proceed with welfare reform," and congressional aides note that funding for the program is not an issue, according to the AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Freking, AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/13).
In its e-mail to lawmakers, the administration said, "These are highly vulnerable beneficiaries. The administration has no authority to reinstate the program. Congress must act."
CMS spokesperson Gary Karr said, "We want Congress to renew this program." The Bush administration said states are responsible for notifying beneficiaries that their QI benefits are being terminated, and if the Social Security Administration receives the names of those affected by the termination in November, the agency will begin deducting the monthly premium from beneficiaries' checks in December (New York Times, 10/16).
However, SSA officials said there are no plans to change the amounts in monthly checks, according to the AP/Post-Intelligencer (AP/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 10/13). The administration also said the uncertainty about the program could affect the new Medicare prescription drug benefit because it will be more difficult to "motivate individuals" to enroll in the benefit if the program no longer exists, the Times reports (New York Times, 10/16).
Kevin Concannon, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, said, "Congress just walked away and left a lot of poor people hanging. It's frustrating and disheartening. We hope Congress will extend the program, but there is no guarantee."
Howard Bedlin, vice president of the National Council on Aging, said, "It's hard to believe that Congress would cut off vulnerable seniors from the help they need at such a critical time. Medicare premiums have increased more than 50% in three years. Do we really want to have thousands of seniors no longer able to afford to see their doctors?"
Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said the program has "proved its value in helping those who live on the edge of poverty," adding, "Congress needs to act quickly to make sure this important benefit is not lost."
Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said, "Congress should not be playing political hot potato with this issue every year." Bingaman has introduced a bill authorizing permanent aid for low-income Medicare beneficiaries (New York Times, 9/16). Congress reconvenes on Monday (San Jose Mercury News, 10/16).