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Biden HHS Secretary Pick Praises Medicare Advantage at Hearing

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What You Need to Know

  • Becerra emphasized that he has had health policy experience.
  • He said he would be ready to talk about ways to extend Medicare program solvency.
  • Republican senators avoided making harsh attacks on the Affordable Care Act.

A Democratic nominee to be the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) secretary had nice things to say Wednesday about the Medicare Advantage program.

Xavier Becerra — who is the current attorney general of California, and who spent 24 years serving in the U.S. House of Representatives — talked about the program briefly during a hearing on the nomination that was organized by the Senate Finance Committee and streamed live on the web.

“We see that Medicare Advantage gives us an easier chance to create what are called wraparound programs, to reach out to more people with more services,” Becerra said, in response to a question from Sen. Mike Crapo, R-N.D. Crapo is now the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Becerra also appeared at a confirmation hearing Tuesday that was organized by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. The Senate HELP Committee members focused mainly on topics such as the COVID-19 vaccination efforts.

Becerra said at the Senate HELP hearing that he would work to build on the current U.S. health coverage system, and not work to replace it with a single-payer health care system, but he did not talk much about health insurance at that hearing.

A Public-Private Partnership

The Medicare Advantage program gives private insurers and managed care companies a chance to offer an alternative to traditional Medicare coverage, or “Original Medicare,” to the 63 million U.S. residents who are eligible for Medicare coverage. About 25 million Medicare enrollees are in Medicare Advantage plans.

Becerra’s positive words about the Medicare Advantage program were somewhat noteworthy because Becerra has been a supporter of proposals for setting up a single-payer, government-run health care system.

Traditionally, some supporters of single-payer health care proposals have objected to the kind of involvement that private organizations, including for-profit companies, have in the Medicare Advantage program.

President Joseph Biden said repeatedly while he was on the campaign trail that he would work to get more people health coverage mainly by improving and expanding programs that already exist, not by throwing out the current system and replacing it with a single-payer health care system.

Coverage for People Under 65?

Crapo also asked Becerra about his thoughts about commercial health coverage.

The atmosphere at the hearing was generally friendly, as it was at the Senate HELP hearing, possibly because Becerra left Congress only in 2017.

But Crapo did highlight Becerra’s record of supporting single-payer health care proposals.

“What assurances can you give to Americans who currently have private insurance, including through Medicare Advantage, and that are satisfied with their insurance provider, that they will not lose their coverage in the future, to some sort of Medicare for All approach, or to some other federal takeover of health care?” he asked.

Becerra responded that:  “I’m here at the pleasure of the president of the United States, who made it very clear where he is,” Becerra said. “He wants to build on the Affordable Care Act. That will be my mission, to achieve the goals President Biden put forward, to build on the Affordable Care Act.

Medicare Trust Fund Solvency

Crapo went on to ask Becerra about warnings that the main Medicare trust fund, the hospitalization insurance trust fund, could run dry as early as 2026.

Becerra said that there are short-term fixes and long-term measures that could be taken to extend Medicare solvency. He did not describe Medicare fix specifics but said that, if he becomes HHS secretary, he will be ready to talk about possible ways forward.

Becerra said one basic principle is that any Medicare solvency extender efforts should leave the people who have paid into the system whole.

“Our beneficiaries must come first,” he said.

Health Care Experience

Becerra and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee also worked to counter the Republican argument that Becerra has too little serious health policy experience to be the HHS secretary.

Becerra said that he worked to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program while he was in Congress and also helped to write the Affordable Care Act. While he was in House, he said, he served on the House Ways and Means Committee and worked on Medicare policy issues there.