Your eyes, ears, and teeth are connected to your body – Medicare/Medicaid at 56

Published in RINewsToday on August 2, 2021

Over 56 years ago, Congress became actively involved in the health insurance business with President Lyndon Johnson signing the Social Security Amendments establishing Medicare and Medicaid. The bipartisan legislation creating a national health insurance program. It was introduced in March 1965, and was passed by large majorities of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers. 

At the signing ceremony that took place at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri on July 30, 1965, Johnson handed the first Medicare cards, numbers one and two, to 81-year-old former President Harry S. Truman and his wife, Bess. Johnson proclaimed the former president to be “the real Daddy of Medicare.” Truman, the 33rd President, was considered to be the first president to vigorously call for national health insurance who ultimately saw his proposals stall on Capitol Hill, as the American Medical Association, the American Hospital Association and conservatives tagged it “socialized medicine.” 

Celebrating Medicare and Medicaid 

On July 30th of this year, top federal officials, Congressional Democrats, and aging advocates celebrated the 56th Anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid.

“For decades, Medicare and Medicaid have been a lifeline and a steady foundation for our seniors, children, women, families, people with disabilities, and at every stage in life,” says HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, noting that about 140 million Americans have health insurance coverage through either Medicare (63 million) or Medicaid (74 million). An additional 4 million adults could benefit if the remaining 12 states expanded Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act.

“For 56 years, Medicare and Medicaid have made health coverage a reality for individuals and families when they have needed it,” adds Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, of the Centers for Medicare Services (CMS). “When President Lyndon Johnson called on Congress to spare the nation’s seniors of ‘the darkness of sickness without hope,’ nearly half of seniors were uninsured, most hospitals around the country were segregated, and health coverage was out of reach for many,” she noted. 

“Medicare and Medicaid were critical steps forward in the fight for civil rights that brought the peace of mind that health coverage provides to many, made health care access more equitable by requiring the integration of hospitals, and improved health outcomes across the country,” says LaSure.

With the health needs of those CMS programs recipients always evolving, LaSure calls for the expansion and strengthening of Medicare and Medicaid so they remain quality and reliable health programs. “Ensuring these programs also work to advance health equity nationwide is also a top priority for CMS. Access to health coverage is a right and no one should be left out, left behind or left on the sidelines,” she says.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also took time from her schedule to celebrate President Johnson’s landmark law creating Medicare and Medicaid. “Fifty-six years ago, our nation made a bedrock promise to our seniors and working families: that they deserve the dignity and security of quality, affordable health care. Today Medicare and Medicaid stand as pillars of health and justice, ensuring that millions of Americans receive the care they need, regardless of age or financial means,” says Pelosi.

“As we celebrate this anniversary, Democrats reaffirm this longstanding and unyielding belief: health care is a right, not a privilege. That is why we remain committed to defending Medicare and Medicaid against Republicans’ constant, callous attacks, as well as advancing legislation to bring down sky-high prescription drug prices, improve Medicare’s benefits for seniors and build on the success of the Affordable Care Act to lower health care costs for American’s families,” Pelosi adds.

As the nation celebrates Medicare and Medicaid’s 56th Anniversary, Max Richtman, president and CEO, of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, watches Congress’s continued debates about expanding Medicare benefits. “If you need to see a dentist, if you can’t see properly, if you can’t hear alarms, it’s not a luxury; it’s essential for the safety and health of older people,” he says.

Social Security Works Goes to Washington

On July 30, Social Security Works came to Capitol Hill to celebrate Medicare’s 56th anniversary by delivering more than 125,000 petitions to lawmakers urging them to lower the popular program’s eligibility age from age 65 to 60, allow Medicare to renegotiate lower prescription drug prices for everyone and to upgrade coverage to include vision, hearing and dental services.

“The 56th anniversary is as good as any other occasion to expand Medicare to cover more people, to do work that has not been done for generations,” says Dr.  Sanjeev Sriram, an adviser to the advocacy group Social Security Works, during the Capitol Hill rally. The Maryland primary care provider called these changes long overdue. 

“Now, as a doctor I can tell you: Your eyes, your ears, and your teeth are connected to your body,” said, Sriram during Friday’s rally on Capitol Hill to explain the importance Medicare covering vision, dental and hearing benefits. “I did not have to go to medical school to tell y’all this, but apparently I do have to tell Congress this.”

“We put Democrats in power to make changes, not excuses. It’s time to expand Medicare,” Sriram told senior advocates holding signs with the message, “Medicare for All” and “Medicare Expansion Now.”

Although Senate Democratic leadership agreed to expand Medicare in a recently $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, the measure does not lower the program’s eligibility from age 65 to age 60, says Sriram, noting that lowering the Medicare’s age requirement gives more than 23 million people health care coverage.

While critics say that the nation can’t afford to add vision, dental, hearing and vision benefits, a recently released poll says the Americans support this expansion of benefits. In June 2021, survey findings released by Data for Progress and Social Security Works proves just how popular these proposals are. A survey of 1,175 likely voters shows a full 83% of voters support expanding Medicare to cover hearing, vision and dental care, including 86% of those over the age of 45. That popularity even crosses party lines: 89% of Democrats, 82 of Independents, and 76% of Republicans are in favor.

Congress now has an opportunity to listen to constituents. And many think it’s time to expand Medicare’s benefits and lower the program’s eligibility age, for the benefit of America’s seniors.

Using Savings from Drug Pricing Reform to Expand Medicare

Published in RINewsToday on June 7, 2021

Ahead of President Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28 and as the Democratic administration considers policies to slash rising drug costs, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 65-page report finding that the U.S. pays more than two to four times higher prices for a selected sample of 20 single source, brand name drugs than Australia, Canada and France. The latest GAO report, commissioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), found that Americans, suffering from blood clots, bronchitis, emphysema and Hepatitis C, were paying more for life-saving treatments than patients in these industrialized countries. 

“This important GAO study confirms what we all already know: the pharmaceutical industry is ripping off the American people,” said Sen. Sanders in a statement announcing the March 29th release of the GAO report, “Prescription Drugs: US Prices for Selected Brand Drugs Were Higher on Average Than Prices in Australia, Canada and France.”

“The time is long overdue for the United States to do what every major country on earth does: negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies to lower the outrageous price of prescription drugs. I would urge the president to put this proposal in the American Families Plan and use the savings to expand and improve Medicare for older Americans. We can no longer tolerate the American people paying, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs,” says the Vermont Senator who chairs the Senate’s Budget Committee.

U.S. Paying Outrageous Drug Prices

The GAO study found that in 2020, the U.S. paid 4.36 times more than France, 4.25 times more than Australia and 2.82 times more than Canada for the selected drugs, which represent a sample of the drugs with the highest Medicare Part D expenditures and use. The researchers noted that the publicly available data for the comparison countries were gross prices that did not reflect potential discounts. As a result, the actual differences between U.S. prices and those of the other countries were likely much larger than GAO estimates.

According to the GAO report, while France and Australia operate universal, publicly funded health systems that include prescription drug coverage, both Canada and the U.S. have a significant number of people who do not have prescription drug coverage. But even when comparing the full cash retail prices of selected drugs, the prices quoted to individuals without prescription drug coverage, GAO found that prices were two to eight times higher in the U.S. than the same drugs from pharmacies in Canada. 

For instance, GAO found that the cash price of Epclusa (28 tablets), which treats Hepatitis C, or an infection that attacks the liver, is $36,743 in the U.S. but $17,023.63 in Canada. The cash price of Harvoni (28 tablets), which also treats Hepatitis C, is $46,570.33 in the U.S. but $19,084.54 in Canada. In another example, GAO cited that the cash price of Incruse Ellipta Inhalation Powder (30 inhalations), which treats chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a group of lung diseases which block airflow and make it difficult to breath, is $411.33 in the U.S. but $53.31 in Canada.

Because France and Australia have universal health systems that cover prescription drugs, Australians would pay up to a $28.09 copay for a month supply of these medicines, while patients in France would pay anywhere from $0 to $34.03 for the drugs. The maximum copay that high income seniors with prescription drug coverage in Ontario, Canada would pay for the drugs is $4.67.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

On April 23, 48, organizations, led by Indivisible, Social Security Works and Public Citizen, called on Biden to include bold drug pricing reforms in American Families Plan to expand Medicare, and the result of a new polls supports this legislative action. 

Drug pricing reform will produce upward of $450 billion in savings over 10 years, note the organizations, urging Biden to use these savings to reinvest in Medicare. The call for adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare, lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 and creating an out-of-pocket cap for medical expenses.

Alongside the letter, the organizations released the findings of a new poll from Data for Progress, widespread public support across party lines for expanding and improving Medicare. The poll’s findings noted that 86% of Americans, including 82% of Republicans, support adding dental, hearing and vision benefits to Medicare. It also found that three-quarters of Democrats, a majority of independents, and nearly half of Republicans support lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 55. 

“Allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices down saves money for the federal government, which is the largest buyer of prescription drugs in the world,” said Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works. “We must pump those savings back into Medicare to expand eligibility and add benefits that equalize Medicare with private insurance,” he says.

“Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50, capping out-of-pocket costs, and expanding benefits to include dental, hearing, and vision would improve access to care for millions of Americans. Far too many Americans have lost their insurance or put off needed care due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said Eagan Kemp, Health Care Policy Advocate for Public Citizen. “The Biden Administration and Congress have a chance to deliver important progress at a crucial time,” he says.

Adds Mary Small, Legislative Director for Indivisible, “With the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic still being felt in our communities, now is a crucial moment to expand public health care coverage and deliver savings on prescription drug prices to the American people. Lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 50 will be an essential step toward reducing the racial health inequities by increasing coverage to communities of color and low-income folks.”  She adds, “Allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and then reinvesting those savings back into the program to expand services further strengthens our path toward universal coverage for all.” 

Last Thoughts

Garnering applause, Biden put high drug costs on his Administration’s radar screen at his recent address before Congress. “Let’s give Medicare the power to save hundreds of billions of dollars by negotiating lower drug prescription prices. It won’t just help people on Medicare. It will lower prescription drug costs for everyone,” said the 46th President of the United States. “We’ve talked about it long enough. Democrats and Republicans, let’s get it done this year,” he said.

But actions speak louder than words, say Washington Insiders.  They note that Biden’s American Families Plan, did not include any proposal to slash pharmaceutical costs or lower the Medicare eligibility age. Is it possible for Biden to lower the drug prices in the United States, making the prices more comparable to other industrialized countries and to even expand Medicare, in the face of fierce opposition from Republicans, moderate Senate Democrats and pharmaceutical companies?  

According to the latest KFF Health Tracking Poll released June 3, 2021, the findings indicate that “nearly nine in 10 (88%) favor allowing the federal government to negotiate for lower prices on medications, including three-fourths (77%) of Republicans, nine in 10 independents (89%) and 96% of Democrats.” However, support dwindles “when the public hears argument made by pharmaceutical companies that it could lead to less research and development for new drugs, or that access to newer prescriptions could be limited,” say the researchers.

Will political pressure sway a divided Congress before the upcoming midterm elections to hammer out a bipartisan solution to put the brakes to the nation’s skyrocketing drug costs and to provide more American’s affordable health care through an expanded Medicare program. Its wait and see.

Whitehouse Pushes for Medicare to Pay for Person-Centered Care

Published on July 11, 2016 in Pawtucket Times

At a June hearing of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse calls for improving care for over 90 million Americans with advanced illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and heart disease. On the day of this Aging panel hearing, the Rhode Island Senator unveiled his legislative proposal, “Removing Barriers to Person-Centered Care Act,” at this panel hearing that would promote better coordination between health care providers, and place greater emphasis on the care preferences of Medicare beneficiaries with advanced illnesses.

The hearing, titled “The Right Care at the Right Time: Ensuring Person-Centered Care for Individuals with Serious Illness,” explored ways to improve the quality and availability of care and examined care models that are helping people with serious illness and their families.

Having Important Life Conversations

The June 23 hearing pulled together witnesses who called for “about the need for families and health care providers to prioritize these important life conversations, so that individuals’ wishes are known and person-centered care is prioritized,” noted U.S. Senator Susan Collins, who chairs the Senate Special Committee on Aging. In her opening statement the Maine Senator called for federal policies to “support efforts to relieve suffering, respect personal choice, provide opportunities for people to find meaning and comfort during serious illness, and – most important – remain in control of their own care.”

Advance care planning conversations to a patients’ physical, emotional, social and spiritual well-being are important in the care of a patient, says Collins. However, studies reveal that less than one-third of physicians have reported that their practice or health care system has a formal program in place to assess patients’ goals or preferences, she notes.

Collins also shared a personal story of a close friend who benefited from the person-centered care she received while she was a patient at the Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, Maine. “Despite her serious illness, because of hospice care her days were filled with visits from friends and families and many joyful moments, and she was surrounded by her family when she died peacefully,” she said.

“I’ve heard from Rhode Islanders about how difficult it can be for patients battling serious, advanced illnesses to get the care and respect they want,” said Whitehouse.

Whitehouse noted that “We can do better by these patients. Because so many of the rules and incentives in our health care system are tied to the payment structure, we should design payment systems that support models of coordinated care that focuses on the full person. Payment systems should reward providers for honoring patients’ own preferences for their care.

As Dr. Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of the New York Times best-selling book, “Being Mortal, mentioned in his testimony, “people with serious, potentially life-limiting illnesses face substantial and increasing suffering, particularly during the last year of life. Medical care today typically exacerbates this suffering, often without any benefit of lengthened life. We have an opportunity to change this.”

“The goal is not a good death. Instead, the goal is to have as good a life as possible all the way to the very end,” say Dr. Gawande.

In her testimony, Amy Berman, a nurse and senior program officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation, who is living with stage IV inflammatory breast cancer stand stressed the importance of palliative care, which is designed to improve the quality of life for patients with serious illness.

“Palliative care is the best friend of the seriously ill,” said Berman, “Studies have shown that when palliative care is added at the beginning of a serious illness that people feel better and live longer.”

Finally, Dr. Kate Lally, Chief of palliative care for the Providence-based Care New England Health System, Medical Director of the Integra Accountable Care Organization, and Assistant Professor of Medicine at Alpert Medical School of Brown University, urged Congress to consider legislation that would improve the quality, not just the quantity, of life of the seriously ill. “I feel blessed to do this work, and to be able to reflect with my patients on the life they have lived, their joys and regrets,” she said. “I feel I am able to share some of the most sacred moments of their life, and be at their side as they consider what is most important to them in their limited time.”

“The healthcare system as a whole, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, need to face growing expectations about how people with serious or terminal illnesses are treated,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are investing in prevention and early treatment and getting better results. Ultimately, however, people will still face serious illness and palliative care. Person-centered care is the proper prescription, and we must strive to make sure that it’s available. We need to be vigilant when it comes to supporting a healthcare environment in which patients with serious illness feel they are well informed and can remain properly in control of their options. And while families still tend to avoid these discussions in advance, when the time is right proper guidance makes a world of difference.

“People form especially strong opinions about decisions made that may prolong their existence, but add little to the quality of lives and, in fact, can prolong suffering,” Connell added. “Conversations on this phase of life are critical and we applaud Senators Collins and Whitehouse for their contribution to this dialogue.”

Legislation to Support New Models of Coordinated Care

The thrust of Whitehouse’s legislative proposal is to promote better coordination between health care providers, and place greater emphasis on the care preferences of Medicare beneficiaries with advanced illnesses.

“Too many Rhode Island Medicare patients battling difficult illnesses are struggling to get the right care at the right time,” said Whitehouse. “We need to break down the barriers between patients and the care they need. Because so many of the rules and incentives in our health care system are tied to the payment structure, we should design payment systems that support new models of coordinated care that are focused on human beings and not some rule or regulation.”

Whitehouse’s legislation would establish a pilot program administered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) made up of twenty “advanced care collaboratives” of affiliated health care providers and community-based social service organizations. Collaboratives would receive a planning grant to assess the needs of the population of patients it would serve; to purchase or upgrade health information technology to facilitate better coordination of care between providers; and to support education and training on documenting and communicating beneficiary treatment preferences and goals.

Once planning is complete, collaboratives would enter a three-year payment agreement with Medicare to provide coordinated, high-quality care for their target patient population. Under the terms of the pilot program, CMS would waive regulations to promote innovative care for patients with advanced illness.

Waivers would be granted to allow Medicare patients to receive hospice care and curative treatment at the same time. Currently CMS’s regulations force patients to choose one or the other for their terminal illness. Patients would be able to also receive Medicare coverage in a skilled nursing home without a consecutive three-day inpatient hospital stay. Under current Medicare rules, patients are often charged for skilled nursing care after they leave an inpatient hospital stay because they were hospitalized for observation rather than admitted to the hospital.

Whitehouse’s legislative proposal would also allow Medicare patients to receive home health services without the requirement that they be homebound. Under current rules, a patient’s condition must have progressed such that there “exists a normal inability to leave home,” denying these services to those who are seriously ill but still mobile. Finally, it would also allow nurse practitioners to sign home health and hospice care plans and certify patients for the hospice benefit. Right now, only doctors can do so, even though nurse practitioners are often the ones administering home health and hospice care. This forms another barrier for patients seeking these services, especially in underserved and rural areas.

According to Tom Koutsoumpas, Co-Chair of the Coalition to Transform Advanced Care’s (C-TAC) Board of Directors, Whitehouse’s legislative proposal is “a critical step forward to achieving high-quality, coordinated care for those with advanced illness. This legislation allows for important innovations in care delivery and removes obstacles to support patients throughout the care continuum.”