May 28, 2010

House Passes “Doc Fix” for Seniors

The U.S. House passed a watered-down version of H.R. 4213, “The American Jobs, Closing Tax Loopholes, and Preventing Outsourcing Act,” on Friday.  The original bill was supposed to extend unemployment benefits, COBRA, and Federal Medicaid assistance to the states, as well as prevent doctors from being subject to scheduled Medicare reimbursement cuts beginning on June 1.  The version that passed does include $23 billion in funding to put off 21% cuts in reimbursements to doctors for 19 months.  This provision, known as the “Doc Fix,” passed 245-171 and ensures that Medicare beneficiaries have access to quality and affordable medical care.  However, the legislation that passed did not include COBRA or Federal Medicaid assistance to the states, after fiscal conservatives scaled back many components of the overall bill. “The ‘Doc Fix’ provision is vital to seniors, as it would ensure that Medicare beneficiaries have access to trusted family physicians and specialists – a pivotal component for maintaining overall health,” said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance. “Unfortunately, the version that passed the House is a disappointment, because it did not include funding for several other key priorities.  Now we will have to see what the Senate does.”  Unemployment benefits passed by a vote of 215-204.  A complete tally of the votes will be provided next week.

CMS Officially Announces Discount to Part D Beneficiaries in the Doughnut Hole
Last Friday, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued new guidelines for Medicare Part D prescription drug plan sponsors to guarantee that, starting in 2011, Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in Part D will qualify for a 50% savings on their prescription drugs, along with some authorized generic drugs.  Upon entrance into the coverage gap, or “doughnut hole,” eligible seniors will see the discount when they buy their drugs at their local pharmacy counter.  Additional savings on prescription drugs for seniors will take effect over time, until the doughnut hole is closed by 2020.  Addressing the coverage gap is an important part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, the health care law signed by the President this year.

President’s Fiscal Commission Holds Its Second Meeting
Cuts to Medicare, Social Security, and Medicaid are on the table as President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility takes on the federal deficit.  After the Commission’s second meeting on Wednesday, USA Today reported that Social Security and defense top the list of the panel’s targets.  New Hampshire Alliance members braved Wednesday’s heat wave to warn commuters outside Sen. Judd Gregg’s (R-NH) Concord, NH office that he wants to raid Social Security to pay down the national debt; Sen. Gregg is one of the 18 members of the Fiscal Commission.  Also this week, some members of the media made misleading comments in assessing Social Security’s role in the deficit.  Joe Scarborough, the host of “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, for example, stated that if the U.S. does not increase the retirement age and make significant cuts to Social Security, then this country will end up like Greece, financially distraught and bankrupt.  In truth, Social Security is fiscally responsible.  By law, it cannot spend money that it does not have.  The Social Security Trust Fund currently has a $2.5 trillion surplus that can help pay out benefits for years to come, and without any changes, Social Security could cover three-quarters of benefits until 2083, when people born today will be 73.  “Cutting Social Security with a buzz saw, rather than merely tweaking it, would be extremely harmful to seniors and would increase the nation’s poverty rate,” said Ruben Burks, Secretary Treasurer of the Alliance.

With Medicare Rebates Just Around the Corner, Some Worry About Scams
One of the most immediate benefits from the new health care law is the $250 rebate that Part D Medicare beneficiaries will receive if they fall into the doughnut hole in 2010.  More than 3 million seniors will receive a one-time check for $250 if they reach the doughnut hole this year and are not eligible for low-income assistance.  The rebate, which will start being mailed on June 10th to seniors already in the doughnut hole, is another piece of the overall plan to close the doughnut hole.  Some policy experts worry that seniors will be targeted by scam artists looking to cash in on the lack of information about how to receive the rebates.  Seniors’ advocates warn that scammers are likely to call seniors, pretending to be part of an organization tasked with helping them register to get their rebates.  They may say things like, “With the health care reform, you’ll need a new Medicare card, so I’m going to need some information from you.”  Many seniors who are unaware about the specifics of the rebate program could become victims of identity theft, or be asked to pay money in return for help with processing their checks.  In reality, those qualifying for the $250 rebate do not have to do anything in order to receive their check.  Unlike most parts of Medicare, there is no third party involvement with this program, as the federal government will mail the rebate checks directly to qualifying recipients, no registration necessary. For more on the $250 checks, go to http://bit.ly/bMjHmm.

Alliance Events Inside and Outside the Beltway
Edward F. Coyle, Executive Director of the Alliance, spoke to 90 attendees at the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists convention in Detroit on Wednesday.  The same day, Richard Fiesta, Director of the Department of Government and Political Affairs, spoke at the House Democratic Caucus’ Seniors Task Force Roundtable, themed “Seniors and the Economy,” on Capitol Hill.  Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA) co-chair the caucus.

Seniors Would Be Hurt by U.S. Mail Cuts
The Postmaster General has proposed reducing the mail delivery schedule from six to five delivery days, and the Postal Regulatory Commission began holding public field hearings to get feedback from the public [ http://bit.ly/T3hBk ].  Hearings in Las Vegas, NV; Sacramento, CA; Dallas, TX; Memphis, TN took place this spring, with more to follow in Chicago, IL; Rapid City, SD; and Buffalo, NY in June [ http://bit.ly/b72CCk ].  Seniors and workers across the country continue to express concerns over this reduction in mail delivery and the possible loss of 30,000 letter carrier jobs nationally.  “The mail system is a lifeline for many seniors who both receive multiple prescriptions and pay their bills through the mail, rather than online,” said Mr. Coyle.

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