Senate Hopes To Use Medicare ‘Giveback’ Bill To Provide Some Aid for Beneficiaries
Having failed to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit, the Senate now faces the "politically sensitive task" of approving a package that would provide some aid for seniors before the midterm elections in November, the Los Angeles Times reports. The Senate is working on a $50 billion Medicare "giveback" package that would increase reimbursements for physicians, hospitals, HMOs, nursing homes and other providers. But with little of the funding included in the bill directly benefiting Medicare beneficiaries, some senators are pushing to "sweeten the pot" with a "Medicare improvement bill" that would add new benefits to the program, including coverage of self-injected drugs and oral medications for cancer (Kemper, Los Angeles Times, 9/17). Some senior advocacy groups have asked lawmakers to include other benefits, including tests to detect cholesterol, hypertension and osteoporosis; a tax credit to cover long-term care costs; and continuation of a program scheduled to expire that assists low-income Medicare beneficiaries with their Part B premiums (California Healthline, 9/13). In a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the committee's ranking member, several senators said, "It is critical that any proposal passed out of the Finance Committee strike an appropriate balance between addressing provider payment needs and making needed improvements to the Medicare benefit package." The letter also urged the committee to "move forward on appropriate Medicare improvements in time to allow this important legislation to be enacted before the November elections." As it stands, the package includes the following:
- Fees for physicians would be increased 2% to 3%.
- Hospitals, particularly rural and teaching facilities, would receive at least $14 billion over 10 years.
- Medicare+Choice plans would receive an extra $3 billion in payments.
- Scheduled cuts of 10% for nursing home reimbursements and 4.9% for home health agencies would likely be reduced or eliminated.
In addition, Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is lobbying to include a provision to require competitive bidding for companies that rent or sell wheelchairs, oxygen tanks and other medical equipment to Medicare beneficiaries for home use. Further, Baucus wants the package to "make it harder" for Medicare to deny payments for air ambulance services, and Grassley intends to add a "payment equity" provision to reduce reimbursement rate disparities between urban and rural providers. "It's unfair for Medicare to penalize low-cost health care providers for being low-cost," Grassley said. The Times reports that lawmakers are promoting the package's "handouts" as advantages for Medicare beneficiaries (Los Angeles Times, 9/17).
In other Medicare news, Pfizer is planning an advertising campaign to encourage low-income Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in its discount-drug card program, the Wall Street Journal reports. During the next month and a half, Pfizer will run a one-minute spot touting the Pfizer for Living Share Card on several cable stations, including the History Channel and the Discovery Channel, and on network affiliates in 15 states that Pfizer says lack programs for low-income Medicare beneficiaries, including California, Florida, Texas and Ohio. States also were selected based on the number of seniors and people with disabilities who may qualify for the program, the Journal reports. The television campaign comes after a six-month grassroots effort to enroll people in the program. Pfizer declined to say what the advertising campaign will cost. According to the Journal, Pfizer hopes to foster "goodwill with the public" through the program, which is losing as much as tens of millions of dollars. Patient enrollment began March 1, and since then more than 500,000 prescriptions have been filled through the program (Hensley, Wall Street Journal, 9/17).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.