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USA Today and Medicare: The Hits, the Misses and the Absences

October 04, 2011
10:23 am

Yesterday, USA Today devoted its front page to a topic many of us have been discussing intensely for some time – how to address Medicare’s escalating costs. 

The newspaper listed five ways to “squeeze” Medicare spending and then discussed the political arguments for and against each.  Some, such as gradually raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 and requiring higher-income beneficiaries to pay full premiums for their Medicare Part B (physician services) and Part D (prescription drug) coverage are recommendations that the Healthcare Leadership Council has made to the congressional deficit reduction “super committee.”

But, in a number of ways, the USA Today article missed the mark:

•      In discussing cutbacks to Medicare providers, including physicians, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies, the newspaper expanded on the likelihood that those health sectors would strenuously argue against any cuts, but there was no reporting on the impact those reductions would have upon beneficiaries.

This is a pet peeve of mine, as I’ve noted previously.  Too often, both politicians and commentators speak of the value of cutting providers instead of patients, obscuring the fact that reduced payments to providers has an impact on both the accessibility and quality of healthcare.  If, as the Obama Administration has proposed, pharmaceutical companies are required to send over $100 billion in rebates back to the government, can there be any other outcome besides higher prices for consumers and less money available for research and development of new innovative medicines?

Relating to another sector, there was an interesting discussion on the KevinMD blog yesterday that raised legitimate questions over whether cutting physicians’ incomes will make a dent in overall healthcare spending.

•      Aside from a quick reference to the controversy over Congressman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI), USA Today quickly dismissed the idea of giving Medicare beneficiaries greater consumer choice among competing health plans, citing one study that showed it would increase out-of-pocket costs.

The concept deserves more consideration than that.  If, as the Healthcare Leadership Council and experts like former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin has proposed, you give beneficiaries the choice of staying in conventional fee-for-service Medicare or moving into a new competitive Medicare Exchange, both health plans and providers would be compelled to find innovative ways to reduce costs while maintaining high quality and value.  This is a pro-consumer direction that deserved more than a couple of sentences in a major story on Medicare costs.

•      Where was any reference in the USA Today story to medical liability reform?  Fixing our nation’s broken medical malpractice system won’t, by itself, fix Medicare’s long-term fiscal problems, but reducing the practice of defensive medicine to protect against exposure to litigation will certainly generate meaningful savings.

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