Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday March 19th, 2014, 3:40pm

Schakowsky Speaks Out Against Proposals To Expand Medicare Means Testing

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9) says Medicare beneficiaries would have to shoulder a severe financial burden if additional means testing is introduced into the program, as some federal proposals have recommended.

The congresswoman on Wednesday jointly released 150,000 petition signatures against means testing Medicare with national groups including the Medicare Rights Center and Social Security Works. The petition calls on President Barack Obama "to drop support of Medicare cuts," according to the groups.

"At least one in five seniors are already cutting back on health care because they can't afford it," Schakowksy said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning. "Shifting more costs onto their shoulders is not the answer, especially when there are better solutions."

Wealthier Medicare recipients already pay more towards their premiums for Medicare Part B coverage to help pay for outpatient care, doctor services' costs, and Medicare Part D perscription drug coverage. 

"This isn't a new idea," the congresswoman noted. "It started with the Medicare Modernization Act in 2003. But it's still a bad idea, and expanding it to cover more seniors and people with disabilities is an even worse idea."

Medicare beneficiaries who currently pay these higher monthly premiums include individuals with annual incomes greater than $85,000 and couples with incomes above $170,000. Stacy Sanders, federal policy director at the Medicare Rights Center, noted that by comparison, households deemed wealthy for tax purposes "tend to start around an income of $200,000 or even $400,000 a year."

About 5 percent of Medicare recipients, or some 2.4 million people, are now pay these higher premiums, which can range from $147 to $336 per month for their Part B coverage, Sanders explained. The standard Part B premiums are under $105 per month, she said.

Provisions outlined in Obama's budget proposal for fiscal year 2015, for example, look to expand the Medicare Part B and Part D premiums related to income in an effort to help trim the federal deficit. Under the administration's blueprint, and other more common proposals to expand Medicare means testing, income thresholds would be restructured and frozen until 25 percent of Medicare recipients have income-related premiums, while also increasing those premium amounts. 

"The truth is that these proposals constitute little more than a cost shift to middle income seniors and people with disabilities," Sanders stressed. "If implemented today, these plans would force individuals with annual incomes of as low as $45,600 to pay higher premiums. And it's expected that 20.4 million beneficiaries would be paying these higher premiums by the year 2036 ... Most Americans simply do not believe that an income of $45,600 counts as wealthy. They believe that these people are middle-class."

Schakowsky stressed that half of the nation's seniors are already living on total household incomes below $23,500. Shifting more costs onto seniors would make an already "very tough situation even worse" for them, the congresswoman said.

Evanston resident Charlie Hogan, 73, a veteran who is a member of the Alliance of Retired Americans and an AFSCME union activist, stressed that most seniors are on fixed incomes.

"If we didn’t have Medicare, if we didn’t have insurance at work, we’d lose our homes. We’d lose everything,” Hogan stressed.

"Austerity is not going to work," he added. "We’re not going to cut our way out of this stuff. We have to start looking at a bigger answer, a more holistic answer to our problems ... This is not an entitlement. We paid into this all our lives. This is social insurance. We're not about to put up with having this stuff nickeled and dimed away from us." 

Schakowsky contends that more money could be saved by requiring Medicare to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies for prescription drug discounts, a proposal that the congresswoman said has been on the table and is something she will "continue to push for." 

"The (Congressional Budget Office) estimates that the president's proposal would reduce Medicare spending by $56 billion over the next 10 years, but estimates on Medicare price negotiation range around $150 [billion] to $200 billion over that same period," she noted.

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