Medicare Legislation Could Face Easier Passage
CongressDaily on Thursday examined how "the pressures of an election year" might lead Republican congressional leaders "to give ... the upper hand" to sponsors of bills that would waive the financial penalty for Medicare beneficiaries who missed the prescription drug benefit's enrollment deadline in May. The penalty is equal to a 1% increase in premiums for each month of delayed enrollment.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is "resist[ing] efforts" by Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to quickly pass a bill (S 2810) that would eliminate the penalty for those who sign up during the next open enrollment period, which begins in November (Sherman, CongressDaily, 6/8). The legislation also would provide $18 million for efforts to help more beneficiaries enroll (California Healthline, 6/6).
In the House, Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health Chair Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) has introduced similar legislation (HR 5399), but committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) has said legislative changes to the drug benefit are unnecessary.
Because neither Frist nor Thomas is seeking re-election, "their views on the Part D program might matter less in the long run than those of lawmakers who will still be here next year or who will be on the ballot this fall," according to CongressDaily. Meanwhile, other lawmakers who are seeking re-election this year could influence the outcome of the bills.
For example, Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) -- "both of whom face tough races this year" -- are co-sponsoring the Grassley-Baucus bill. Johnson also "is not taking anything for granted in her race" for re-election, CongressDaily reports.
"[A]lthough the summer will probably go by with little movement on the bills, ... the penalty issue will almost certainly come up again as lawmakers get closer to the election and as Nov. 15, when the next enrollment period begins, approaches," according to CongressDaily.
CMS spokesperson Peter Ashkenaz said the number of beneficiaries who would be affected by the penalty is relatively small when compared with the number of beneficiaries who have opted out of Medicare Part B or who pay higher premiums for Part B benefits because of late enrollment. Ashkenaz on June 1 said that enrollment data still is not finalized but that CMS officials "expect that there will be about 4.5 million [beneficiaries] who haven't enrolled."
About three million of those beneficiaries are low-income beneficiaries for whom the penalty has been waived, which "leaves about 1.5 million who, if they decide to enroll, would face a penalty," Ashkenaz said. By comparison, about two million beneficiaries are not enrolled in Part B, which covers physicians' visits, and about one million beneficiaries pay higher premiums for Part B because they signed up late.
According to CongressDaily, 1.5 million beneficiaries -- "even spread around the country -- might be 1.5 million too many for a party worried about keeping its majority status" (CongressDaily, 6/8).
"If every senior's health were improved to delay the onset of one chronic illness by three to five years ... the cumulative saving[s] to Medicare would be hundreds of billions of dollars," a Washington Times editorial states, adding, "That does not count the increased wealth and productivity generated from longer life." Although some conservatives "remain angry" that the 2003 Medicare law passed and "assert that prescription drug spending will simply overwhelm other forms of health care expenditures, ... [t]he cost of drugs is never as high as the cost of treating the same disease," according to the editorial (Washington Times, 6/8).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.