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.

Seniors would benefit in President Biden’s $6 trillion budget

Published in RINewsToday on June 14, 2021

On May 28, with the release of a $6 trillion budget for fiscal year (FY) 2022, President Joe Biden outlined his values and vision as to how he proposes to revive the nation’s sputtering economic engine as it emerges from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The 72-page budget document, “Budget of the United States,” (with more than a 1,400-page appendix) details his spending priorities that begin next Oct. 1. Biden’s generous budget depends on increasing taxes on America’s corporations (from 21 to 28 percent) and high earners, who received significant tax breaks from the President Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017.

With the FY 2022 Budget pushing federal debt to the highest levels since World War 1I, Republican lawmakers quickly called the proposal “dead on arrival” in Congress.  However, Cecilia Rouse, chair of President Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors says the Biden Administration is willing to live with a budget deficit to invest in the economy now, especially with low interest rates to borrow; deficits can be reduced later. 

President Biden’s new spending under the just released proposed FY 2022 budget, recognizing his Administration’s priorities, reflects the major proposals already outlined under the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan. Provisions in these two proposals would overhaul the nation’s aging infrastructure and invest in education, childcare, paid family and medical leave, fight climate change. 

President Biden’s spending plan also recognizes priorities outlined in the American Rescue Plan passed earlier this year as well as the Administration’s “skinny” discretionary budget request released in April. Most importantly, it reflects a commitment from the president to safeguard Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Loving It or Hating It Depends on Where You Sit

In remarks delivered Thursday in Cleveland, President Biden made the case for his budget request and what he describes as an investment in the country’s future. “Now is the time to build [on] the foundation that we’ve laid to make bold investments in our families and our communities and our nation,” he said. “We know from history that these kinds of investments raise both the floor and the ceiling over the economy for everybody.”

In the FY 2020 Budget proposal’s “Message from the President”, Biden says, “The Budget invests directly in the American People and will strengthen the nation’s economy and improve our long run fiscal health. It reforms our broken tax code to reward work instead of wealth while fully paying for the American Jobs and American Family Plans over a 15- year period. It will help us build a recovery that is broad-based, inclusive, sustained, and strong,”

Of course, response to Biden’s Spending plan depends on which side of the aisle you are sitting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) released a statement strongly endorsing Biden’s fiscal blueprint. “Congressional Democrats look forward to working with the Biden-Harris Administration to enact this visionary budget, which will pave the path to opportunity and prosperity for our nation. The Biden Budget is a budget for the people,” she said.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell strongly opposing Biden’s Budget proposal. “Americans are already hurting from far-left economics that ignores reality,” said McConnell, in a statement. “The Administration’s counterproductive ‘COVID relief bill’ has slowed rehiring. Families are facing painful inflation, just as experts warned the Democrats’ plans might cause. And the Administration wants to triple down on the same mistakes?” said the six-term Republican Kentucky Senator.

With the Democrats holding the slim majorities in the House and Senate and controlling the White House, Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal will have more weight than if the Republicans were in the majority, says Dan Adcock, Government Relations and Policy Director at the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM).

According to Adcock, Biden’s funding numbers will change as his FY 2022 budget proposal goes through the appropriation process in the upcoming months. With its release, Congress can now begin negotiating funding levels and spending bills. Competition for a finite amount of funding will ultimately result in funding level ultimately allotted to programs and agencies by each of the 12 appropriations under their jurisdiction. Funding for most programs important to older Americans is under the jurisdiction of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

“With 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day – and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 – it’s clear that President Biden understands the need to safeguard the older Americans he calls ‘pillars of every community – now and into the future.” Says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO.

Slashing Drug Costs to Pay for Expanding Medicare Coverage

Richtman says that Biden’s fiscal blueprint calls on Congress to allow Medicare to negotiate prices for certain high-cost, life-saving drugs that many seniors currently cannot afford and to require manufacturers to pay rebates when drug prices rise faster than inflation. These reforms could yield over half a trillion in federal savings over 10 years, which could help pay for coverage expansions and improvements, including access to dental, hearing, and vision coverage in Medicare,” he notes. Today, traditional Medicare does not cover routine care like dental checkups or hearing aids.

According to Richtman, President Biden’s budget also includes more than $400 billion in new spending over ten years to expand Home and Community-based Services (HCBS) for low-income seniors and people with disabilities who prefer to receive skilled care in the comfort of their homes and communities, even moreso after the devastation COVID wrought on nursing homes.  

In states that have not taken advantage of Affordable Care Act (ACA) opportunities to expand Medicaid, the budget proposes providing premium-free, Medicaid-like coverage through a federal public option, along with incentives for states to maintain their existing expansions. 

Biden’s FY 2022 budget also urges Congress to improve customer service for Social Security beneficiaries to prescription drug pricing reform to expanded HCBS, adds Richtman.  It also proposes a $1.3 billion (or 9.7%) funding increase for the Social Security Administration.  The increase seeks to improve customer service, including services at SSA’s field offices, state disability determination services, and teleservice centers.

 The Older Americans Act (OAA) provides funding for a wide range of home and community-based services, such as meals-on-wheels and other nutrition programs, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregivers’ support. These programs help seniors stay as independent as possible in their homes and communities. 

For details about Biden’s FY 2022 Budget proposal and OAA funding levels, made available from the Washington, DC-based National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, go to: https://www.n4a.org//Files/FY22%20PresBudget%20and%20historical%20Labor-HHS%20Appropriations%20Chart.pdf

 Stay Tuned 

The House continues its work on hammering out appropriation bills through subcommittees in June and in the full House in July.  The Senate’s work is expected to begin in mid-Summer and to continue well into September. If the appropriate bills are not passed and signed into law by Oct. 1, Congress will need to pass a continuing resolution to fund the federal government into the first months of FY 2022.

Like most Budget proposals, especially in a partisan Congress, Biden’s spending plan will need to be rewritten to win support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. However, it will serve as a roadmap for a Democratic controlled Congress in crafting 12 appropriation spending bills. Partisan bickering during the appropriations process may well force passage of a continuing resolution before Oct. 1 to block a government shutdown. 

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.