MEMO: Halloween Comes Early for Nevada Seniors

MEMO: Halloween Comes Early for Nevada Seniors

Date: October 16, 2009

To: Interested Parties

From: Americans United for Change

Subject:  Those Ads on TV Scaring Nevada Seniors About Medicare Cuts Have Everything to Do With The Bottom Line of the Health Insurance Companies Behind Them and Nothing to Do With What’s Best for Seniors.  The Health Insurance Proposals Before Congress Would Actually Strengthen Medicare and Lower Costs for All Beneficiaries.

If you’ve turned on the television this week, you’ve probably seen a scary new ad from America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) – the top lobbying group for the health insurance industry.  AHIP is spending $1 million to warn seniors in several states, including Nevada, that they will see their ‘Medicare advantage’ benefits drastically cut under the health insurance reform proposals before Congress.  SEE THE AD HERE: “AHIP Million-Dollar Ad Campaign Targets Seniors” - The Huffington Post, 10/13/09

Hearing the words “Medicare” and “cut” in the same sentence is frightening stuff for any Medicare beneficiary, which is precisely what AHIP is trying to accomplish: scaring seniors in order to kill health insurance reform.  But, in fact, according to the AARP“None of the health care reform proposals being considered by Congress would cut Medicare benefits or increase your out-of-pocket costs for Medicare services.” 

As the basis for their frightful claim, AHIP points to proposals before Congress to rein in over $100 billion in overpayments to the so-called “Medicare advantage” program – a program set up to funnel tens of billions of dollars in wasteful government subsidies to private insurance companies that offer virtually the same services as traditional Medicare and leave many wondering where the ‘advantage’ is.  SEE: Med Page Today, “Private Medicare Costs More Than Traditional Plans Without Quality Improvement,” November 26, 2008: 

And that’s what these ads are really all about: protecting over $100 billion in needless subsidies awarded to the big insurance companies to poorly reinvent the Medicare wheel.

This isn’t the first time big insurance has tried to rattle seniors about Medicare benefit cuts in the current debate over health insurance reform.  We here atAmericans United for Change ran a television ad of our own last month called “Halloween Comes Early for Humana” after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched an investigation into whether insurance giant Humana “misused [Medicare] beneficiaries' personal information" by sending a misleading mailer warning of Medicare “benefit reductions” and “higher costs” under health insurance reform proposals before Congress. The mailer went out to seniors in a number of states using a federally-provided list.


Click Here to View “Halloween Comes Early for Humana” 

Why would Congress dare to do such a thing?  Because it will strengthen Medicare for all beneficiaries and save America’s taxpayers a lot of money.  According to the Economic Policy Institute, “In a nut shell, Medicare Advantage plans are private plans funded through Medicare to provide similar benefits, but at a 14% higher cost on average,according to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC), an independent Congressional agency.”

EPI further notes: “The [insurance] industry uses the overpayments to offer sweeteners like free dental check-ups or reduced premiums that entice seniors to enroll in the plans and justify their existence to Congress. As MedPAC Chairman Glenn Hackbarth recently testified, the enhanced benefits provided to Medicare Advantage enrollees are “overwhelmingly…not financed out of plan efficiency, but rather by the Medicare program and other beneficiaries.” These overpayments, which come at the expense of other Medicare enrollees and the long-term health of the program, go toward profits and higher administrative costs, including the cost of marketing the plans to seniors.”

But the real kick in the shins, according to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is that “y increasing Medicare costs, these overpayments also drive up premiums for beneficiaries in traditional Medicare by $86 per year for a couple, according to the chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services….More than 31 million seniors and people with disabilities enrolled in regular Medicare are forced to pay higher premiums each month to subsidize these excess payments. The overpayments also ‘contribute to the worsening long-range financial sustainability of the Medicare program,’ as Glenn Hackbarth, MedPAC’s chairman, has warned Congress. They advance the date when the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will become insolvent by 17 months.”

So, when AHIP and Humana try to alarm seniors about the potential “cuts” in “benefits” to Medicare – what they’re really talking about are these “sweeteners” that only some Medicare Advantage enrollees receive but that ALL beneficiaries of traditional Medicare pay for through higher and higher premiums.  But here’s the thing: the insurance companies don’t necessarily have to touch these extras at all if Congress passes health insurance reform – reform that won’t scrap the Medicare advantage, just the overpayments the program receives way above and beyond what traditional Medicare does.

Here’s a novel idea for the big insurance companies that are still going to make huge profits from this program with or without the wasteful subsidies they currently enjoy: how about looking first at your massive CEO compensation and administrative and marketing costs before you consider making any adjustments to these ‘sweeteners?’

Insurance giant Humana’s CEO Michael McCallister, for instance, made $4,764,309 last year. Cigna’s CEO H. Edward Hanway made $12,236,740 last year and is retiring with a $73 million golden parachute.  

Are there any sweeteners they can do without?

Oh, and about those lower premiums insurance companies used to entice many seniors to enroll in Medicare advantage?  SURPRISE.  The Wall Street Journal reported this week: “Premiums that seniors pay for Medicare Advantage plans will increase an average of 25% next year, largely because insurers, in response to new federal requirements, are canceling many plans that carry no premiums, a top Medicare official said Wednesday.”

The bottom line: AHIP’s ads have nothing to do with what’s best for Nevada seniors and everything to do with big health insurance industry’s insatiable greed.  The tens of billions of dollars in needless subsidies the big insurance companies are raking in every year to offer the so-called ‘Medicare advantage’ program are putting 31 million seniors and people with disabilities enrolled in traditional Medicare at a considerable disadvantage. That’s what’s really scary.  Scarier still is to think what the insurance industry will do to maximize their profits next if Congress doesn’t pass health insurance reform.