DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, here in Washington, President Obama unveils his budget tomorrow. It is expected to include about $400 billion in cuts to Medicare and other health programs. One possible proposal would change the way Medicare patients pay for their care. It's been floated as a possible bipartisan compromise.
But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports in today's Business Bottom Line, it's an idea with a long, controversial and unsuccessful history.
JULIE ROVNER, BYLINE: First, here's about all we know for sure about efforts to change the way Medicare's complicated cost-sharing scheme works now. This was White House spokesman Jay Carney last Friday, talking about the budget.
JAY CARNEY: The president has been engaged over the past weeks in a conversation with lawmakers of both parties about the need to find common ground. And he has been exploring with Republican lawmakers where that common ground can be found.
ROVNER: What's been rumored for weeks is that one of those so-called common ground ideas is to merge how patients pay for Medicare's two main parts: Part A, which covers hospital and some nursing home care, and Part B, which covers doctor and outpatient costs. This year, the Part A hospital deductible is $1,184. The Part B outpatient deductible is $147. Tom Miller, a resident fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says having separate deductibles and coinsurance schemes for Medicare Parts A and B is an anachronism that dates back to the 1960s when Medicare was created.
TOM MILLER: And that's been a legacy which has been very hard to change, because it requires an act of Congress, which requires agreement an anything, which tends not to be the case.
ROVNER: Miller is one of many economists who say it would make much more sense to have a single, merged deductible, which would likely make many patients pay more. That's because most Medicare patients aren't hospitalized in a given year, but they do almost all go to the doctor. In exchange, though, Medicare could add new catastrophic cost protection for patients. So after a patient pays a set amount, Medicare would step in and cover the rest.
MILLER: That's the world in which you need insurance. But Medicare traditionally doesn't have that type of structure.
ROVNER: Actually, it did - briefly. Congress added so-called catastrophic coverage to Medicare back in 1988. But it repealed it in 1989 after an outcry from seniors who were outraged at being asked to pay for it. Miller says the problem now, however, is that so many Medicare patients have supplemental coverage - either from a former employer or policies they buy themselves - that they're not sensitive enough to the cost of the care they consume.
MILLER: They're not facing enough incentives at the point of purchase to consider whether or not that next visit to the doctor, that next test, might be worth the money if they were paying for some of it themselves, as opposed to taxpayers paying for most of it.
ROVNER: That's why some of the proposals being floated would no longer let private supplemental insurance cover those deductibles and coinsurance. But opponents of the cost-sharing proposals, like Howard Bedlin of the National Council on Aging, say that logic is flawed. He says those tests economists talk about being overused...
HOWARD BEDLIN: Those are things that are ordered by the doctor. It's not the beneficiary who's choosing to take those.
ROVNER: And studies have long shown that while making patients pay more does reduce unnecessary care, it reduces necessary care as well.
BEDLIN: And what's the implication going to be? You know, people delaying care that they need, ending up in the emergency room, and ultimately maybe costing the system more.
ROVNER: But the bottom line, says Bedlin, is that most Medicare beneficiaries just don't have a lot of extra money to spare.
BEDLIN: Half of Medicare beneficiaries have incomes below $22,500. Very few of those get any help with cost-sharing. I'd say only about three million out of that 25 million.
ROVNER: And even those who do have higher incomes already spend more of it on health care. Medicare households spend about 15 percent of their income on health care, compared to about five percent for households without a Medicare patient, proving yet again that everything in health care is more complicated than it appears. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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