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Seniors Worry About Medicare Advantage Cuts

Seniors Worry About Medicare Advantage Cuts

Associated Press/AP Online

December 28, 2009

MIAMI – Insurers constantly caution seniors that their Medicare Advantage perks such as hearing aids, dental payments and even gym memberships will fizzle if Democrats get their way and cut government subsidies for them.

But tens of billions of Medicare dollars funneled through insurers also pay for extras that never reach beneficiaries: multimillion-dollar salaries, executive retreats in Hawaii, Scotland and Cancun, and massive expenditures on marketing to lure more customers to the privately administered Advantage plans that serve as an alternative to government-provided Medicare.

The government-subsidized benefits that seniors on Advantage plans receive – often at premiums lower than Medicare premiums – are real, and are legitimately in danger in some cases if Democrats succeed in their health care overhaul.

Medicare Advantage subsidies are on the chopping block to pay for the overhaul. Though there are marked differences between House and Senate versions, both bills would lower payments to private Medicare Advantage plans, which on average cost the government 14 percent more than traditional Medicare.

The harshest critics of the Advantage program say patients are exchanging hassle-free coverage for a plan with cheap perks that may ultimately deny them necessary treatment.

“They’re giving special benefits that are valuable,” said Mary Johnson, policy analyst for The Senior Citizens League, a nonpartisan, 1.2-million-member group. “But what people don’t understand are the trade-offs.”

Though AARP – which lends its name to a Medicare Advantage plan – and other senior advocacy groups support the Advantage cuts, it is likely that at least some seniors will see their premiums rise, benefits cut or plans close.

“I get too upset over it,” said 71-year-old Charlotte Casey of Miramar, Fla., who is on an Advantage plan through Coventry Health Care. “The seniors are going to get the worst of it.”

Casey first enrolled in a Humana plan, but she dropped it over problems with its prescription drug coverage. She plans to switch from her current plan, too, because her primary care doctor will no longer be covered and she’d have to travel farther for nonemergency hospital services. She has had to fight for payment sometimes, but overall she says it is the best fit for her because she doesn’t need a costly MediGap plan to cover what traditional Medicare would not.

“Regular Medicare is the best one, but you have to pay for a supplement,” she said. “With this, sometimes you want something and they don’t want to give it to you.”

Despite the belief that Advantage plans offer broad savings for seniors, a Government Accountability Office report last year found wide differences depending on the plan, including home health service costs that could be up to 84 percent more than traditional Medicare.

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