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As Medicare goes private, the press just stands by

COMMENTARY | May 22, 2007

The government sounds like the voice of the insurance industry as it hucksters older Americans into joining ‘Medicare Advantage,’ a means of unraveling the popular, effective program. Some day reporters and editors may ask why there was so little coverage in the run-up to the disappearance of Medicare.

By Gilbert Cranberg

The press was on its toes when the Bush Administration proposed private investment accounts, saw it for the scheme to privatize Social Security that it was, reported on it and thus helped derail privatization when the public understood what was at stake. Not so with the administration’s plan to privatize Medicare.

Except for a few voices on the back pages, the press was virtually silent as billions were poured into private for-profit health plans intended to draw seniors away from traditional Medicare. Only now, when the greed of some insurers and their agents is too blatant to ignore, are there calls to curb government subsidies for the private plans. Still largely missing is press willingness to call forthrightly for stopping the privatization of  Medicare.

The chief vehicle for undermining Medicare is Medicare Advantage, which is being aggressively pushed by insurance companies and  agents and,  unmistakably, by the Bush administration’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that oversees Medicare. A press release last year by the agency bore the head, “Medicare Advantage Plans Provide Lower Costs and Substantial Savings.” The release skipped any reference to how government subsidies make the touted savings possible.

The government’s promotion of the private plans is evident also, somewhat more subtly, in  “Medicare & You,” the supposedly disinterested and objective “official government handbook” published by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and sent to all Medicare beneficiaries. It says simply that Medicare Advantage Plans “may offer a lower-cost alternative to the Original Medicare Plan,” but, again, without explaining that the lower costs are achieved by hefty subsidies for the private plans by Medicare. Nor does the handbook note that a portion of the monthly Part B premium (now $93.50) seniors pay for physician services helps underwrite the subsidy.

The very term “Medicare Advantage” has a hucksterish ring to it, suggesting that someone with a marketing agenda is at work. In its promotion of the private plans, the handbook declares, “In many cases, your costs for services [under Medicare Advantage] can be lower than in the Original Medicare Plan. Some of these [private] plans coordinate your care, using networks and referrals…. This can help manage your overall care and can also result in savings to you.”

The handbook generally downplays the cost of co-pays.

Medicare is stunningly successful and popular. Why would anyone want to desert it? Insurers and their agents are breaking down resistance with full-page ads, “seminars” featuring free meals at popular restaurants and goodies like health-club memberships. Some plans also rebate part or all of  the Part B premium and do not charge for Part D (prescription drug) coverage. The need to drop costly Medigap coverage is an especially powerful lure for Medicare

Advantage. Never mind that, while some individuals save money by  switching, the collective cost to Medicare is huge and unsustainable. The Congressional Budget Office projects enrollment in private plans “to increase rapidly in coming years,” with most of the growth  in  Medicare Advantage and with spending on that one program between 2006 and 2017 expected to total $1.5 trillion.

In a paper sent to me recently, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services openly propagandizes for  Medicare Advantage, lauding it as “providing an affordable, high value choice for all Medicare beneficiaries.” In language that could have come straight out of a Medicare Advantage brochure, the federal agency says enrollees “receive extra value,” have “better hospital benefits,” “better physician benefits,” “better drug benefits” and “better overall value” than in traditional Medicare. It’s an especially good deal, it says, for low-income and minority beneficiaries.

Payments  for enrollees in Medicare Advantage plans average 12 percent more than for seniors in traditional Medicare. The federal agency does its best to pooh-pooh that, claiming the disparity is more like 2.8 percent.

Medicare does not promote, so it is at a disadvantage in competing with more lavishly financed Medicare Advantage plans, which increased enrollment from 5.3 million in 2003 to 8.3 million last February. Call traditional Medicare Medicare Disadvantage.

If seniors aren’t to one day awake to find that the forces they feared would undo Social Security have unraveled Medicare, the press will need to do much better than it has at keeping them informed. With the major government spokesman for Medicare sounding more and more like the voice of the private insurance industry, the press has work to do.

You're So-o-o-o Right...
Posted by Kim Wright - NCPSSM
05/23/2007, 02:43 PM

From the War in Iraq to the War on "Entitlements" (translation: Social Security and Medicare cuts) the press has shirked its journalistic responsibility to be more than political mouthpieces for any given administration.

The destruction of Medicare is happening in broad daylight while CNN spends hours on Paris Hilton and even the old bastions of journalism, like the Washington Post, now repeat political slogans as if they're facts.

Just as our political process has jumped the tracks...so has our journalism profession. I never thought we'd see the day where you can't tell the difference between a political reporter and a press secretary.

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