Our parents, grandparents and neighbors throughout the Tampa Bay area and across America will see their Medicare coverage improve when the landmark health reform passes. That's correct — Medicare benefits improve. Contrary to opposing claims, not one guaranteed Medicare benefit is cut. Not one. Here are the facts:
• Effective immediately, the Medicare prescription drug "doughnut hole" will begin to close (by $250). By 2020, it will close completely. Currently, Medicare stops paying prescriptions after a patient reaches $2,830 and then starts again after $4,550 — causing seniors to skip doses or not fill prescriptions at all. The real-life choice for many between medicine or food or rent will be addressed once and for all.
• Annual screenings and checkups will be free, ensuring that older Floridians receive the preventive care and checkups they need. Prevention works. In the long run, this is a cost saver for us all because appointments are not skipped and serious conditions are caught and addressed earlier.
• Doctors who serve Medicare patients will be paid more in order to keep the best doctors participating in Medicare and serving our seniors. Raising reimbursements will ensure that seniors continue to see the primary care doctors they know and trust.
• The wasteful overpayments to private insurance companies under Medicare Advantage will end. Medicare currently overpays private insurance plans by 14 percent to provide the same or often fewer benefits than traditional Medicare. These insurance companies have gamed the payment system, padding their profits with little to no benefit to patients.
These special interests are the source of much of the opposition to health care reform. According to reports, Humana — which makes huge profits from Medicare Advantage — more than doubled the amount it spent on federal lobbying last year from $510,000 to $1.3 million. WellPoint — another big player in Medicare Advantage — spent $1.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2009, a 24 percent increase from the fourth quarter of 2008. Aetna spent $802,573 in the final quarter of 2009 on lobbying, a 55 percent increase from the final quarter of 2008. These powerful special interests are clearly protecting their profits.
• The commitment to weeding out fraud and criminal activity in Medicare will improve immensely. The financial health of the Medicare Trust Fund will be extended by almost a decade.
Despite all of the scare tactics used during the health reform debate, Medicare will be stronger. Benefits for our parents, grandparents and neighbors will improve. The GOP's plan to change Medicare into a voucher system will not rule the day. Instead, we will build upon the legacies of Social Security and Medicare and strengthen our fundamental commitment to older Americans, their families and their health.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is a Tampa Democrat.