Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.
It’s not too late to observe and celebrate the 45th anniversary of Medicare, for it’s a good occasion to wonder, in this time of economic distress, what life would have been like without it for the 45 million of us who are eligible because we are disabled or over 65.
One reason I ask is I suspect those deficit crazies have not thought about the consequences for Medicare if, as Republicans suggest, the Social Security retirement age is raised from 66 to 70 on the grounds that we’re all living longer.
It does not occur to these loonies that Social Security and Medicare are among the reasons for the increase in longevity. But then members of Congress will always have all the coverage they need for themselves and their families, subsidized by your taxes and mine.
Nevertheless, by putting aside the human issues for a phony bottom line and a deficit that matters little to most of us, it would not be long before these lawmakers on Barack Obama’s deficit commission would raise the Medicare age eligibility. That, of course, would sharply increase, by at least a few million, the nearly 50 million Americans under 65, including 10 million children and babies, who are without adequate health coverage and are dependent on emergency rooms or free clinics.
If I may get personal, let me tell you what Medicare has meant for me, for my experience has not been unusual, although I’m lucky to have supplementary coverage through my wife’s former employer, which used to be free but now costs a bundle. Most other Medicare beneficiaries have similar secondary coverage through former employers or one of several Medigap policies sold by several insurers to cover some or all of the costs not covered by Medicare.
I don’t mean to get too basic, but Medicare Part A, which pays for hospitalization, has rather high deductibles; Medicare Part B covers 80 percent of the cost of physician and lab services. Secondary insurance covers those Medicare gaps, and some may provide drug coverage.
Anyway, in 2003, I had a serious stroke, which partly paralyzed my right side and necessitated hundreds of hours of inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation at several of the nation’s finest facilities. The stroke was caused by a heart malfunction which was cured with minor surgery.
In 2005, after too many years as a smoker (I had quit in 1976), I was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, which is usually fatal. But chemotherapy, radiation and radical surgery at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore saved my life.
For all this, plus frequent checkups, CT scans, routine doctor visits and a recent prostate procedure, I have paid nothing aside from the reasonable Medicare Part B premiums and the cost of secondary coverage. In short, I can say what millions of Medicare beneficiaries say: without Medicare, I’d be broke, bankrupt or dead.
But that, alas, has been the experience of the millions who, because they are too young, have been denied Medicare. Nor do they yet have decent, dependable and affordable health care because a compromising president and a spineless Congress, mostly Republicans and conservative Democrats, have declined to give the rest of the nation what they and the rest of the world have, universal health coverage like Medicare.
The anniversary of Medicare’s adoption, by a liberal Democratic Congress and president (Lyndon B. Johnson), has give advocates an opportunity to list its lesser known accomplishments. While most of the new health reforms won’t become effective until 2014 (the Part D doughnut hole won’t close until six years later), Medicare was serving 19 million Americans a year after passage.
In a paper written by June Eichner and Medicare’s first director, Bruce Vladek, they point out that beginning in 1966, as the nation’s largest purchaser of health care, Medicare desegregated most hospitals as a condition for receiving Medicare reimbursement. Since then, they wrote, Medicare has contributed not only to the improvements to the lives and health of the disabled and older populations, but has gone far in erasing disparities between blacks and whites. More than 25 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were living in poverty in 1965.
The passage of Medicare came just after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Which is why southern Democrats joined Republicans in resisting Medicare. But because of those two landmark pieces of legislation, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that
“the gains in black access to hospitals (in Mississippi) coincide with a striking reduction in black post-neonatal deaths for causes considered preventable.”
The cost for these improvement were borne by Medicaid, passed along with Medicare to provide care for the very poor.
Another study noted that Medicare played a significant role in the education of today’s physicians. According to an April Wall Street Journal story, there are about 110,000 resident positions in teaching hospitals that rely heavily on Medicare funding.
Medicare pays $9.1 billion a year to teaching hospitals which pays residents’ salaries as well as the higher operating costs associated with teaching hospitals which tend to see the sickest, most costly and uninsured patients. Unfortunately conservative diehards kept out of the health reforms any increase in the number of funded residencies.
There are, too, a few glitches that have shown up lately in Medicare that need fixing. Under current law, persons over 65 who end their employment and employer health coverage must apply for Medicare during a “special enrollment period” up to eight month after that coverage ceases.
But if the workers chooses to get COBRA coverage, which usually lasts 18 months, they may not realize that they will be disqualified from the special enrollment period and will have to wait until the regular open enrollment period, from January through March 31. In that case, their Medicare coverage won’t begin until July 1. This rule is 24 years old but because it’s happening frequently, legislation is pending to permit signing up for Medicare when COBRA runs out.
Here’s another glitch, discovered by Bloomberg News. Under current law, a person (who suffered a stroke or was injured) is entitled to skilled nursing care and rehabilitation after three days in a hospital. But lately some hospitals, to save money, are keeping patients “under observation” and not admitting them, thus depriving them of the rehabilitation they need. Medicare auditors are challenging this practice, which should be reported as fraud to Medicare.
Finally, the biggest necessary fix is the one Obama said he was for before he became president; Medicare For All. It is the subject of a new appeal to the Congress by Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D, Ohio), John Conyers (D, Mich.), and Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
If Congress won’t pass it, they asked that states be permitted to adopt it. It would be better, of course, if Medicare for All was federal law. If Obama led the way, he could be in the same leagues as LBJ. But our president for change, who has yet to speak forcefully against cutting or tampering with Social Security benefits, is too busy to listen. Maybe it’s possible in a second term, if he gets one.
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