Seniors and their caregivers should be watching closely as the Supreme Court hears arguments regarding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law and other aspects of health care provisions affecting seniors under the act.
At stake are major new benefits for people enrolled in Medicare that shouldn’t be overlooked during the legal wrangling in Washington, D.C. Contrary to intentional misinformation meant to scare seniors, health reform is working and millions of Americans 65 and older are already reaping new benefits of an improved Medicare program.
Health reform has removed many financial barriers to preventive care for those with Medicare. Beneficiaries can now access services like annual wellness visits, cancer screening, and cholesterol checks with no out-of-pocket costs.
The dreaded "donut hole," the coverage gap that left seniors paying thousands out of pocket for lifesaving medications, will soon become a thing of the past. It is shrinking annually, and consumers are now getting 50 percent off name-brand drugs while in the hole. By 2020, the donut hole will be gone.
Surely the health reform law will bring big changes for Americans that will be confusing as they are put into place without well planned preparatory seminars for seniors. But the haze that has obscured the reality of the health reform law is starting to clear. As the fog lifts and seniors begin to understand and access these new benefits, it’s obvious Medicare recipients are already much better off.
In 2011 alone, nearly 3.6 million people with Medicare saved $2.1 billion on their prescription drugs thanks to the new law, and $135 million of that here in Texas. An estimated 32 million beneficiaries took advantage of at least one free preventive service. All the while, for many Medicare enrollees, Part B premiums actually declined in 2010 and 2011.
These are tangible benefits that seniors should demand be preserved regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court case.
And if we can make it to 2014 with the Affordable Care Act intact, people who retire before age 65 will no longer have to struggle with unaffordable coverage as they anxiously await Medicare eligibility. Early retirees will get access to new health insurance exchange marketplaces that will not charge more or deny coverage on the basis of health conditions, and will also give a hand to moderate-income families who need help affording insurance.
But our new preventive care benefits will only work if we can get an appointment. Too many physicians are announcing they intend to accept no new Medicare patients, leaving seniors to wonder if this reflects an attitude of indifference to older Americans. Perhaps we seniors should demand better care from our Medicare doctors? One way we can improve access to the new Medicare preventive care under the ACA is to increase the number of health care providers trained in senior medical care. Texas and far too many other states lack strong geriatric training requirements in most health care science programs. Geriatric education in medical school results in healthier seniors and better care because physicians understand the aging body and treat it with greater insight and respect. Without required minimum standards for certification and continuing education, physicians today are just not keeping up with the latest in treatments, medications and considerations for those over 65.
Pairing the ACA’s new Medicare prevention benefits with strong standards for physicians to annually update their knowledge of care for seniors could improve outcomes without cost to taxpayers. The more our doctors know about optimal care for seniors, the better the care. Fewer medication errors and hospitalizations would be a happy result. And many physicians would fulfill their continuing education requirements in the process – improving care and cutting costs without adding to the expense of state agencies.
As the law continues to be debated, we’re likely to hear more of the same "government takeover" rhetoric. But ask a senior who’s gotten a free checkup or a break on the cost of prescription drugs and you’re likely to hear another story: about how the health reform law brings with it a sigh of relief.
Streckfuss is a retired registered nurse.