Since last year passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, Medicare beneficiaries have faced considerable fear and uncertainty in regard to the future of our nation's health insurance program for seniors. The healthcare bill as written calls for billions of dollars in cuts to the popular Medicare Advantage (MA) programs, which caused a wave of anxiety for seniors who fear it might mean less options for their coverage. With healthcare spending under intense scrutiny by Congress in recent weeks, many older Americans are wondering: will they lose access to their current Medicare plan?
To be sure, the future of funding for all Medicare programs has been up in the air since January. For those in support of MA programs, much relief was felt in February 2011 when it was announced that despite the healthcare bill's future funding cuts to MA plan, we could actually expect to see a 1.6% increase in money for these programs in 2012.
This expected increase was due in part to a bonus program built into the healthcare legislation that would financially reward MA plans that deliver a high quality of care for it members. Any measure that works to increase quality in our healthcare seems positive. A collective sigh of relief could almost be heard across America from many beneficiaries who have chosen this type of plan for their personal coverage.
However, with the huge unsustainable debt our country now faces, we yet again have seen programs like Medicare and Social Security fall under review by Congress as a potential source of cuts to try to balance the budget. These entitlement programs, as they are called, when combined with our nation's spending on Medicaid, accounts for an enormous part of our national spending. Almost overnight, we saw the threat shift from MA plans to original Medicare itself.
With many members of Congress decrying that our current healthcare system for older Americans is fiscally unsustainable, the House of Representatives passed a bill this last week that calls for a plan to phase in a voucher program for senior healthcare. This program would give each Medicare beneficiary a voucher to purchase the private health plan of their choice. While this may have allayed fears for people enrolled in MA plans, it did just the opposite for people on the original government-funded Medicare program. Now we hear many people wondering, if the bill passes the Senate, will they lose their plan?
While the future as yet remains uncertain, there is no immediate cause for panic. First of all, baby boomers are turning 65 at a rate of over 10,000 people per day. This makes the group of Americans over age 65 one of the largest voting blocks in the nation. You will certainly have opportunities to make your opinions known to your Congressmen. Second, the bill is not finalized – it still has to pass the Senate, and senators are likely to counter-offer with their own measures for change. Finally, even if the bill were to pass exactly as is, the voucher program would not affect Americans currently 55 and older. These individuals would be grandfathered into today's healthcare options as we know them.
The moral of the story is that this is not the first time the costs of the country's Medicare system has been a subject of debate in legislation. It likely will not be the last either. Voters should carefully watch the debate and contact their legislators with their concerns. Last but not least, since some kind of changes to popular programs are likely to be required in order achieve a balanced budget, increasing your savings for your medical needs in retirement is a good way to create your own safety net.