Members of the Senate Finance Committee voiced bipartisan support for the Medicare Advantage program offered by insurers. They also implied that opponents of the program will have an uphill battle getting Congress to cut its appropriations.
In fact, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking member of the committee, got a critic of the program to acknowledge that if the program is cut back, urban as well as rural areas will be hurt. Grassley also won support from those testifying on the issue that reducing payments to Medicare Advantage would have a “disproportionate effect” on rural areas.
Moreover, a number of senators attending the hearing on the program questioned the national data indicating that Medicare Advantage is more costly than routine fee-for-service programs offered to Medicare recipients.
“We need regional data,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. “National data is masking what is going on in our state. We have to make decisions by region, and we don’t have adequate data to do that.”
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the committee, made the same point in his opening statement.
Senators of both parties from Kansas, Oregon and Washington also claimed that cutting the program would hurt Medicare beneficiaries in those areas, and that insurers providing Medicare Advantage services are working efficiently and effectively to provide broad medical and wellness services to beneficiaries.
The atmosphere in the Senate panel was far different than in a similar hearing several weeks ago before the Health Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.
There, critics of the program, led by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., wanted to curtail Medicare Advantage spending in order to avert the scheduled 10% cut in Medicare payments to physicians and to pay for an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Stark, AARP, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission and the Congressional Budget Office all contend that, on average, Medicare Advantage plans are paid 12% more than fee-for-service. This difference varies significantly by plan and by region of the country.
Some Democrats want to cut the program to save $65 billion over 5 years.