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Medicare and Medicaid at 50

Jul 10, 2015 Tags: Medicare, Seniors

Medicare and Medicaid, the two mainstays of government health insurance, turn 50 this month, having made it possible for most Americans in poverty and old age to get medical care. While the Affordable Care Act fills the gap for people who don’t qualify for help from those two programs, there are important improvements still needed in both Medicare and Medicaid.

At the time the two programs were enacted in July 1965, advocates of Medicare, which today covers 46 million Americans over the age of 65 and nine million younger disabled people, expected that it would expand to cover virtually all Americans. Although polls between 1999 and 2009 showed consistent majorities in favor of expanding Medicare to people between the ages of 55 and 64 to cover more of the uninsured, it never happened.

Still, its achievement in improving life expectancy and reducing poverty among the elderly has been enormous. Before Medicare, almost half of all Americans 65 and older had no health insurance. Today that number is 2 percent. Analysts say that between 1970 and 2010, Medicare contributed to a five-year increase in life expectancy at age 65, by providing early access to needed medical care. Even compared with people under age 65 who have insurance, those on Medicare are less likely to miss needed care or have unmanageable medical bills.

While Medicare, which covers hospital care, doctors’ services and prescription drugs, is comprehensive, many people are still left struggling to pay premiums, cost-sharing for various services and the full cost of items not covered by Medicare, like dental care and extended stays in nursing homes. Roughly half of all Medicare recipients live on incomes of less than $24,000 per person, and while the poorest of them get additional help from Medicaid, many do not. Medicare still lacks a cap on the amount a beneficiary has to pay out of pocket, the most basic function of insurance. By contrast, the Affordable Care Act puts limits on beneficiary spending per year and over a lifetime.

The Affordable Care Act has helped Medicare beneficiaries by eliminating co-payments and deductibles for preventive care like mammograms and colonoscopies, and by providing discounts for very heavy users of prescription drugs. It will strengthen Medicare as a system through demonstration projects to find new ways to deliver care that will improve its quality and lower its cost. The challenge will be to identify and spread the most promising innovations so that they benefit not just Medicare, but the entire health care system.

Medicaid, the other part of the medical safety net, is a joint state-federal program for the poor. For the past five decades, it has been critical in reducing childhood deaths and infant mortality. It has saved the lives of patients with chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and asthma. Last year it covered some 64 million people in a typical month and 80 million people at some point during the year. If Medicaid did not exist, life expectancy in America would be much lower.

The problem with Medicaid is that federal rules give states great leeway in deciding whom the program helps. Many states are so cheap that only extremely poor parents qualify for Medicaid coverage and childless adults are excluded entirely. Texas, for example, only covers parents who earn up to 15 percent of the federal poverty level, or less than $4,000 a year for a family of four, and does not cover other non-disabled adults at all, while other states, including New York and California, offer far better coverage. The result is huge differences across the country for assistance to poor, sick people.

The Affordable Care Act was intended to reduce this disparity by offering additional federal funding for states to expand their Medicaid programs to cover all adults up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or $32,913 for a family of four. Yet 21 states, the vast majority run by Republican governors, have chosen not to expand.

Medicaid could be improved by raising its payments to doctors, who often refuse to take Medicaid patients because the rates are so low compared to private insurance and Medicare. Medicaid should also cover legal immigrants, who currently have to wait five years to be eligible, and illegal immigrants, who are currently denied coverage entirely.

Despite the perennial fear that the costs of these two programs will grow uncontrolled, spending in both has been growing at a relatively modest rate in recent years. Medicare and Medicaid have changed and grown over the decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations, to meet new challenges. Their performance and popular support has allowed them to withstand ideologically-driven attacks on their continuance as government entitlements. These programs succeed, in fact, because they entitle all eligible Americans to receive the health care they need.  (Source: nytimes.com 07/03/2015)