Democrats, Seeking To Ease Seniors Concerns, Propose Freeze On Medicare Part B Premiums

Politico reports: "House Democrats proposed Wednesday to freeze Medicare Part B premiums for the coming year rather than risk what would be an October surprise for health care reform — threatened cuts in Social Security checks for millions of elderly."

"The origins of the crisis have little to do with the current health care reform debate, but the timing could not be worse. Without some intervention by Congress, Medicare is slated to announce next month increased Part B premiums, which are typically deducted from a retiree's Social Security check to help pay for physician services. This would be a routine event but for an unusual combination of circumstances this year that could result in some seniors being asked to pay as much as 14 percent more than their current premiums. For those impacted, that increase could mean a real cut in their Social Security checks next year, since retirees aren't expected to get a cost-of-living increase in January given the drop in the consumer price index this year. For Democrats, who hope to be on the House and Senate floors with health care legislation next month, this would be a political nightmare. And in the rush to find some solution, the party leadership opted to protect even upper-income households, who represent about a fifth of those most affected" (Rogers, 9/24).

Wall Street Journal/Dow Jones reports: "The U.S. House likely will vote Thursday on a measure that would prevent premium increases for Medicare Part B from taking effect next year. For over a quarter of Medicare beneficiaries, monthly premiums for Part B are scheduled to increase to $110 to $120 next year from their 2009 level of $96.40 per month. The bill is designed to prevent that increase from taking effect. ... Premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor's visits and outpatient services, are linked to the annual cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security benefits. Because of low inflation, Social Security benefits will remain flat next year" (Yoest and Boles, 9/23).

The Associated Press reports: "Social Security COLAs (cost of living adjustments) and Medicare Part B premiums have been tied together for years because most seniors have their Medicare premiums deducted from their Social Security payments. ... About 42 million seniors and people with disabilities are enrolled in Medicare Part B. With no Social Security COLA, 75 percent of Medicare Part B recipients are automatically exempt from premium increases. ... Among those facing premium increases, if Congress does not act: Low-income seniors on both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor, pays their Medicare premiums, meaning states would bear some of the costs; High-income seniors on Medicare Part B — singles making more than $85,000 a year and couples making more than $170,000; New enrollees in Medicare Part B would pay the higher premiums, if Congress does not act" (Ohlemacher, 9/23). 

CQPolitics reports: "More broadly, senior citizen groups have been urging Congress to make sure Security recipients get some boost in benefits next year, either by passing legislation to adjust the COLA or by providing a one-time payment. No benefit increase is expected otherwise, because inflation has gone down under the formula the government uses to determine payment adjustments. ... Several Republicans have criticized the push for an increase, noting seniors received a 5.8 percent COLA last year, which was the highest since 1982" (Clarke, 9/23).

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