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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Bush Should Get the Looters Out of Medicare

Private Insurers are looting the Medicare system.

These insurers are profiting at Medicare's expense, increasing the chances that traditional Medicare will be wrecked before the Baby Boomers are old enough to get it, according to a Medicare Payment Advisory Commission analysis, released June 6.

It wasn't supposed to be that way.

A few years ago -- when the Medicare Modernization Act was shoved through Congress in the dark of the night -- proponents claimed that by pushing private insurance plans for people on Medicare, the act would save the program money. These Medicare Advantage plans were supposed to make the system more efficient.

Instead, the report reveals, Medicare spends 11 percent more for beneficiaries in Medicare Advantage plans than for people in traditional Medicare. Not only are private insurers costing Medicare more now, but the Bush administration has taken steps to lock in overpayments for years. There was no need for private insurers in Medicare in the first place. Traditional Medicare has been highly efficient, in terms of both administrative costs and what it pays to the medical-care system.

In the past, lawmakers have tried to open Medicare to private insurers. In the 1990s, when Medicare began paying insurers according to their costs, insurers fled the system, leaving many seniors with unpaid bills.

The looting of the program by these private companies is not only a bad deal in the short run. It's also part of a move to undermine Medicare before the Baby Boomers can get it.

Here's how that would go:

First, the private insurers help run down Medicare's resources. Second, the government declares traditional Medicare too broke for business as usual. (Since the Medicare Modernization Act passed, Medicare trustees have declared the program less and less solvent each year.) Finally, the government claims that the only solution is to give the whole program over to the private insurers.

And once private insurers have it all, they can slash benefits behind closed doors, so that Medicare will no longer be a reliable medical plan. Although it would pay for some medical care, it would leave huge areas uncovered. People on Medicare would be left to suffer the consequences.

Instead of wrecking Medicare, the Bush administration should be saving it. It could start by stopping the overpayments to private insurers, so that the looters leave Medicare.

We must save Medicare and assure access to health care for future generations.

Ramon Castellblanch, an assistant professor of health education at San Francisco State University, wrote this for the Progressive Media Project.

© 2006 Newsday Inc.
Bush Should Get the Looters Out of Medicare


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