By Mark Miller
CHICAGO Aug 15 Mitt Romney's selection of U.S.
Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate guarantees a fierce debate
about the future of Medicare during the presidential campaign
Ryan is the author of several plans to slash the cost of
Medicare, the U.S. health insurance program for the elderly and
disabled. He would do that by transforming it into a voucher
program that would provide seniors a fixed annual benefit,
so-called premium support. That plan is overwhelmingly unpopular
among all Americans, and especially seniors, because it would
more than double their current out-of-pocket Medicare costs over
the coming decade.
The debate already is generating plenty of claims and
counter-claims about what is and is not working - often based on
misinformation about how Medicare actually functions today. So
let's take a look at the six biggest myths about Medicare, along
with the facts.
MYTH ONE: MEDICARE COSTS ARE OUT OF CONTROL
Facts: Medicare spending will soar in the years ahead as the
number of seniors grows, but its per-capita growth is slower
than private health insurance - and it is getting better. "We
may be reaching the point now where Medicare healthcare expenses
are growing no more quickly than growth of the economy overall,"
said John Rother, chief executive officer of the National
Coalition on Health Care (NCHC). "That's important, but it might
as well be a state secret as far as the public and Congress
The average annual per-capita spending growth rate through
2019 is projected at 3.1 percent for Medicare, compared with 4.9
percent for private insurance plans, according to the Kaiser
Family Foundation. The 3.1 percent projection even includes
higher payments to doctors as part of a long-term solution to
the long-running problem of the sustainable growth rate (SGR)
used under current law to control Medicare spending on physician
The 3.1 percent projection also is smaller than the 3.7
percent annual growth in gross domestic product for that period
projected by the Congressional Budget Office.
Although we hear plenty about fraud and abuse in Medicare -
which is a legitimate area of concern - the program is
dramatically more efficient than private insurance. Medicare
spent just 1.4 percent of every dollar on administrative
overhead, even including money spent to fight fraud and abuse,
compared with 25 percent overhead in private plans, according to
Richard Kaplan, a professor at the University of Illinois
College of Law who specializes in elder law matters.
MYTH TWO: MEDICARE IS GOVERNMENT HEALTHCARE
Facts: The government funds Medicare, but healthcare
delivery is entirely private.
The phrase "government healthcare" implies that the Medicare
program actually delivers the care - as the National Health
Service does in Great Britain, or the U.S. Department of
Veterans Affairs does here. Medicare is simply a
government-financed health insurance provider.
"The government provides the financing, so it's appropriate
to say the government is the health insurance company," Kaplan
said. "But all the doctors, pharmacies, and nursing homes are
private. The provider sends a bill - instead of Blue Cross Blue
Shield, the federal government writes the check. But you go to
whatever hospital you want."
MYTH THREE: OBAMACARE SLASHES $700 BLN FROM MEDICARE
Facts: The Romney-Ryan campaign has trotted out this
scary-sounding number to deflect attention from Ryan's voucher
plan. But it is largely a false claim because it implies that
the health reform law slashes benefits.
The Affordable Care Act actually delivers expanded benefits
to seniors. It closes the prescription drug donut hole over
time, with 3.6 million seniors saving a collective $2.1 billion
last year; it also expands preventive services, including an
annual wellness visit, mammograms and prostate cancer screenings
with no out-of-pocket cost.
Obamacare does cut $700 billion in Medicare spending over a
10-year period. But the cuts are adjustments in payments to
Medicare providers, which are mostly meaningless to patients.
According to the CBO, the ACA's 10-year cuts include $415
billion in fee-for-service payments to healthcare providers,
$156 billion in reduced payments to Medicare Advantage plans,
$56 billion to hospitals, and $114 billion in other
miscellaneous cuts far too numerous to detail here.
MYTH FOUR: DOCTORS WILL NOT ACCEPT MEDICARE BECAUSE OF ALL
Facts: Most Medicare patients do not have trouble finding
doctors who will see them, but there is growing concern about
access to primary care physicians.
This issue is monitored closely by the Medicare Payment
Advisory Commission (MedPAC), an independent Congressional
agency charged with advising Congress on Medicare. The agency's
most recent annual survey of Medicare patients found that just 2
percent of beneficiaries had problems of any kind finding a new
primary care doctor willing to accept Medicare - the same
percentage of patients aged 50-64 with private insurance who
Likewise, just 2.1 percent report trouble of any kind
finding specialists willing to accept Medicare, compared with
2.3 percent for patients with private insurance.
MYTH FIVE: THE WEALTHY ARE GETTING A FREE RIDE
Facts: Medicare has been means-tested since 2003, when the
Medicare Modernization Act established higher premiums for Part
B (outpatient services) for individuals with $85,000 or more in
annual income, and joint filers with income over $170,000.
The ACA expanded these income-related premiums to the Part D
prescription drug benefit, and to the Part C Medicare Advantage
program. Wealthy Americans - of all ages - also will start
paying a new 3.8 percent Medicare contribution tax on unearned
income. The tax affects individuals with more than $200,000 in
modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), and married couples
filing jointly with more than $250,000 of MAGI.
MYTH SIX: RISING LONGEVITY WILL SINK MEDICARE
Facts: It is true that people are living longer, and
Medicare's eligibility age is fixed for everyone at 65. But that
does not mean Medicare costs are rising as a result. That is
because nursing homes, which are the biggest area of expense
incurred in advanced age, are not covered under Medicare.
Medicare covers most hospital costs, but a very limited
amount of nursing home expenses. A study published in the New
England Journal of Medicine found that the cumulative cost borne
by the Medicare program plateaus at age 80.
"It's logical that longer living means more cumulative
healthcare expense," Kaplan said. "But what happens is we need
more nursing care, and less hospital care."