As lawmakers once again debate the future of Medicare as part of broader efforts to address the federal deficit, proposals have emerged that would have severe repercussions for beneficiaries and their families. Sound solutions that would protect Medicare coverage while reducing costs to taxpayers have not been seriously addressed. The six solutions we propose would accomplish both of these goals.
These solutions, unlike many current proposals, do not shift costs to beneficiaries or completely restructure the Medicare program. They are good policy and make good economic sense. They promote choice and competition while shoring up the solvency of Medicare. Adopting these solutions would be a responsible step in reducing our deficit the right way.
1. Negotiate Drug Prices with Pharmaceutical Companies
The Medicare prescription drug law passed in 2003 prohibits the Secretary of Health and Human Services from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies. These companies gained 47 million customers when Medicare began covering prescription drugs, but they did not have to adjust their prices in return. Requiring the Secretary to negotiate drug prices for Medicare would save taxpayers billions of dollars – potentially over $200 billion over ten years. Taxpayers currently pay nearly 70% more for drugs in the Medicare program than through the Veteran's Administration, which has direct negotiating power. Savings realized from reducing Medicare drug cuts could be used to improve benefits for beneficiaries and reduce the deficit.
2. Stop Paying Private Medicare Plans Anything More Than Traditional Medicare
According to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), Medicare pays, on average, 10% more for beneficiaries enrolled in private insurance (Medicare Advantage or MA plans) than for comparable beneficiaries enrolled in traditional Medicare. Despite these extra payments, beneficiaries in private plans who are in poor health, or who have chronic conditions, often have more limitations on coverage than they would under traditional Medicare.
A large portion of the overpayments made to private plans actually goes to insurers rather than to benefit Medicare beneficiaries. Although the Affordable Care Act (ACA) changed the payment formula for Medicare Advantage plans, some plans will continue to be paid as much as 115% of the average traditional Medicare payment rate for their county when the new rates are fully implemented. MedPAC estimates that by 2017 Medicare Advantage payment benchmarks will average 101% of traditional Medicare. ACA also provides additional payments for plans that receive high quality ratings, increasing the likelihood that some MA plans will continue to be paid more than under traditional Medicare. Reducing private MA payments to 100% of traditional Medicare, as MedPAC proposed before the enactment of ACA, will increase the solvency of the Medicare program and curb costs for taxpayers. Private plans simply should not receive higher pay than traditional Medicare.
3. Include a Drug Benefit in Traditional Medicare
Offering a drug benefit in traditional Medicare would give beneficiaries a choice they do not now have, encourage people to stay in traditional Medicare, and save money for taxpayers. It would also provide an alternative to unchecked private plans that leave many with unexpected high out-of-pocket costs. A drug benefit in traditional Medicare would protect beneficiaries against expensive and sometimes abusive marketing practices. Further, traditional Medicare's lower administrative costs could free up money for quality care, would result in lower drug prices for beneficiaries, and save taxpayers over $20 billion a year.
4. Extend Medicaid Drug Rebates to Medicare Beneficiaries Who Qualify for Medicaid or the Part D Low-Income Subsidy
As President Obama proposed in 2011, low-income dual eligible people (people eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid) comprise one-fourth of all Medicare drug users, and are among the most costly beneficiaries. Because Medicare, rather than Medicaid, covers most of their drugs and because Medicare cannot negotiate drug prices, their drugs are not eligible for the same rebates as they were, and would be, under the Medicaid program. Extending Medicaid rebates for dually eligible people would save at least $30 billion over ten years.
5. Lower the Age of Medicare Eligibility
People between 55 and 65 who are not disabled are currently unable to enroll in Medicare. Lowering the age of eligibility to enroll this healthier population in the Medicare program would add revenue from people who will likely need less care and fewer services than older and disabled enrollees.
6. Let the Affordable Care Act Do Its Job
The Affordable Care Act includes many measures to control costs as well as models for reform that will increase the solvency of the Medicare program and lower the deficit while protecting Medicare's guaranteed benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that repealing or defunding ACA would add $230 billion to the deficit while ignoring the real issue of rising overall health care costs, which contribute heavily to the growing national debt. ACA includes strong measures to allow CMS to combat fraud, waste, and abuse that will bring down costs, as well as a variety of pilot and demonstration projects that aim to bring better care and quality to beneficiaries. The bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission recommended that these projects be implemented as quickly as possible. Allowing ACA to do its job will create a foundation on which to build by improving care and holding down costs for taxpayers.
"Protecting Medicare" by shifting costs from the federal government to beneficiaries and their families – whether through a voucher program or spending caps or other draconian measures – is a perversion of Medicare's original intent: to protect older people and their families from illness and financial ruin due to health care costs. The Center for Medicare Advocacy's Six Solutions promote the financial welfare of Medicare and the country, without doing so at the expense of older and disabled people.
See previous Alerts from the Center, "Why Medicaid Matters to Medicare Beneficiaries and Their Families", "What Happens to Current Nursing Home Residents if House Budget Resolution Becomes Law?"
National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, available at http://www.ncpssm.org/pdf/price_negotiation_part_d.pdf
Center for Economic and Policy Research, "Negotiating Prices with Drug Companies Could Save Medicare $30 Billion", March 2007, available at http://www.cepr.net/index.php/press-releases/press-releases/negotiating-prices-with-drug-companies-could-save-medicare-30-billion.
MedPAC, Report to the Congress, March 2011, Chapter 12 (March 2011), available at http://www.medpac.gov/documents/Mar11_EntireReport.pdf.
 Neuman P. Medicare Advantage: Key Issues and Implications for Beneficiaries. Testimony before the House Committee on the Budget, United States House of Representatives, June 28, 2007, available at http://www.allhealth.org/briefingmaterials/NeumanTestimony-830.pdf,
 Medicare Payment Advisory Commission. March 2009 Report to Congress, Chapter 3: The Medicare Advantage Program. P. 251-253, available at http://www.medpac.gov/chapters/Mar09_Ch03.pdf.
Senator Dick Durbin, available at http://durbin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/pressreleases?ID=555cc1e8-cc54-4ead-9d85-d5e6275b3789.
Congressional Budget Office, Letter to Honorable Charles Rangel, available at http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/104xx/doc10464/hr3200.pdf
See previous Alert from the Center, "Combating Fraud, Waste, and Abuse in Health Care."
The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, "The Moment of Truth," December 2010.