Fact-Checking: Medicare Advantage Statements

Senate Democrats want to make nearly $120 billion in cuts over the next decade to Medicare Advantage. That's the program where seniors get health coverage from private insurers rather than from traditional government-run Medicare. Republicans have tried twice to reinstate that money, so far unsuccessfully.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We've launched a new series we're calling Is That So, looking at the health care debate and some of the claims playing out now on the floor of the U.S. Senate. We'll be bringing you quick hits on claims from both sides of the aisle. Today, we're going to spend a few minutes focusing on one argument the Republicans have been making. NPR Congressional correspondent David Welna is here to help us do that.

Good morning.

DAVID WELNA: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So Senate Democrats want to cut nearly $120 billion over the next decade to Medicare Advantage. And that's the program where seniors get health coverage from private insurers rather than from traditional government-run Medicare. Now, Republicans have tried twice to reinstate that money, so far unsuccessfully. They say Democrats are making those cuts at the expense of the elderly. Let's listen to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Republican Leader): They expressly voted to violate the president's pledge, that seniors that like the plans they have can keep them. The president said seniors who like the plans they have can keep them, because you can't cut $120 billion from a benefits program, obviously, without cutting benefits.

MONTAGNE: Well, is that so?

WELNA: Well, it would only be so if cutting those funds for Medicare Advantage actually drove that program under. But, in fact, those nearly $120 billion are being trimmed from the nearly $2 trillion in payments that Medicare Advantage would have gotten over the next decade, and that amounts to only about a 5 percent cut.

Now, even though Medicare Advantage was supposed to save money through managed care, it's now heavily subsidized to insure that it's widely available. Only about 20 percent of seniors actually use Medicare Advantage, so the 80 percent of seniors not enrolled in the program actually subsidize those who are.

MONTAGNE: And then what about Senator McConnell's assertion that benefits will be cut?

WELNA: Well, Medicare Advantage does offer some extra items, such as vision care or gym memberships, but Democrats insist those benefits don't necessarily have to be cut. Instead, they point out that Medicare Advantage has been the biggest moneymaker for the major health insurance companies. And they argue that rather than cutting benefits, those firms could cope with slightly lower subsidies by learning to be more efficient, by pairing their profits, or by scaling back their own multi-million dollar payments to top executives.

So I don't think it's necessarily so that those covered by Medicare Advantage could not keep their plans. And they might get through extra benefits, or they just might keep them, depending on how much those private insurers want to compete for their business. But just in case they do cut those benefits, some Democratic senators from at least three states have already moved to shield their local Medicare Advantage programs from those cuts, as well.

MONTAGNE: NPR congressional correspondent, David Welna. Thanks very much.

WELNA: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And NPR is fact-checking the statements from both sides of the aisle. You can find out more at npr.org.

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