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Health care law makes Medicare stronger, more affordable

When President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union last week, he talked about American values — the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to make a good life for yourself and family, and have something left for retirement. Part of those values is the promise of Medicare that older Americans won't have to spend the last part of their lives worrying about going broke from a hospital bill.

Today, I am visiting Tampa to talk about how the 2010 health care law, the Affordable Care Act, is strengthening that promise. In a state where one in six residents is over the age of 65, it's critical that seniors know about these new improvements and benefits and how they're already making a difference in Floridians' lives.

First, free recommended preventive services and an annual wellness visit are now available to all Medicare beneficiaries. This is the kind of care, like mammograms or colonoscopies, that can keep seniors healthy and also save lives. Seniors who might have delayed or skipped these tests in the past because of the price can get them now with no co-pay at all. They also can get a free annual wellness visit, which is a chance to sit down with their doctor and talk about any health concerns they might have. Already nearly 24.2 million seniors have taken advantage of at least one of these services, including 1.7 million in Florida.

Second, the law improves access to prescription drugs and puts money back in the pockets of Florida seniors. Medications are a growing part of health care costs for many seniors. Those who fall into the Medicare Part D coverage gap known as the "doughnut hole" can pay as much as $4,700 out of their own pockets. In the past, this has led some beneficiaries to split pills or not even fill their prescriptions in the first place.

But now, thanks to the law, beneficiaries who fall into the gap will get a 50 percent discount on covered name-brand drugs. Last year, this benefit saved Floridians more than $100 million. And they don't have to do anything special to get the discount. Just show up at the pharmacy and the savings are already applied. Even better, the discount will continue to grow until the doughnut hole is closed completely in 2020.

Third, the law has made a historic investment in cutting waste, fraud and abuse from the Medicare program. It's strengthened the penalties for criminals who steal from Medicare, and it's put more law enforcement on the ground to find them. The Obama administration is also supporting technology that can help us stop fraud before it happens, and we continue to work with the Senior Medicare Patrol program where seniors teach their friends and neighbors how to stop Medicare fraud.

Combined, these efforts have returned billions of dollars to the Medicare Trust Fund, and last year fraud prosecutions jumped by almost 70 percent, a record increase. We've sent a clear message that defrauding vulnerable beneficiaries and stealing from taxpayers will no longer be tolerated.

Fourth, we're giving hospitals and doctors new ways to improve care while spending our health care dollars more wisely. We're working with leading health systems to help them spread care innovations to hospitals around the country. We're supporting health information technology that will allow doctors and hospitals to work together to coordinate care. And we're giving doctors and nurses the tools to practice medicine the way they want to and the freedom to spend more time with their patients.

Here's the best news: Even as benefits improve and the program is strengthened, many beneficiaries have seen their premiums fall. For example, Medicare Advantage enrollment in Florida went up more than 11 percent last year while premiums fell by an average of almost 25 percent. And a report our department released today shows that thanks to the law, the average Medicare beneficiary is expected to save $4,000 over the next 10 years.

At a time when some are saying we need to make dramatic cuts to Medicare or get rid of guaranteed benefits altogether, the health care law is showing a better way forward. The Obama administration will continue to work to make Medicare stronger and more sustainable for today and tomorrow.

Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Health care law makes Medicare stronger, more affordable 02/01/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 5:14pm]
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