Tester gets feedback on Medicare, Medicaid at seniors town hall meeting

by Erin Loranger, Helena Independent Record

Sen. Jon Tester met with senior health care representatives across the state on Thursday to hear concerns on Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.

In a town hall meeting in Helena, Tester addressed President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and suggestions from House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans to convert Medicare to “premium support,” which would allow the government to make a fixed contribution for each beneficiary.

Democrats, including Sen. Tester, have called the proposal a voucher system and worry that healthier seniors would choose privatized insurance, and sick people with the most expensive medical costs would be left with Medicare, creating impossibly high premiums.

“Medicare is a bedrock program for seniors and to do away with that would be criminal. To voucher it would be very very bad,” Tester said.

Representatives from AARP Montana, The Montana Health Coop and Montana’s Area Agencies on Aging echoed Tester’s concerns, and called on him to protect Montanans with Medicare and Medicaid. They also came with suggestions for improvements to existing services and areas where Montanans need additional benefits.

Several organizations said they had new enrollees or patients who turned 65 and were unable to find a local physician who accepted Medicare, forcing them to to travel out of town or go without care.

“We are bleeding doctors who won’t take Medicare,” Kimme Everman, from Montana’s Area Agencies on Aging, said.

Everman pointed out numerous issues with Medicare, and other parts of the plan she especially thought needed protection.

Most Medicare plans that come with prescription drug coverage have a gap, called a donut hole, which means the plan will only pay a specific amount of money for prescriptions each year. Patients are left to pay all remaining prescription costs out of pocket.

“It’s completely wrong,” Everman said.

Medicare is lacking respite care coverage, meaning caregivers are often without temporary relief if they need a break, or get sick themselves. She also called on Sen. Tester to fix issues connecting the veterans she works with to VA services.

“I don’t have any contacts at the Fort,” she said. “We hear from vets every single day that are unable to get through the system.”

Tim Summers, state director of AARP Montana, said 16 percent of Montana members are veterans, who also struggle to navigate VA services with Medicare coverage.

Sen. Tester said he knew there was a veterans advocate, but he was unfamiliar with the details of that person’s role and workload. Tester said he will bring in additional people if necessary to better serve veterans. He also said he will look at the possibility of waiving the Medicare Part B enrollment penalty for veterans.
“I think there were some good suggestions from a policy standpoint that we can take back to Washington, D.C.,” Tester said.

Multiple organizations asked Tester to protect Medicaid expansion, which gave 63,000 Montanans access to health coverage

House Republicans have proposed block grants for Medicaid before, and released a plan in June to give states a choice between a block grant, or a fixed allotment for each Medicaid beneficiary. Both options would leave states with less money than they have now

Organizations in Montana said they would struggle to make up the difference in funding and might have to put a cap on enrollment.

Tester said he’ll be going to Washington with a goal to fix health care, and said the town hall meeting helped him better understand the link between Medicaid and Medicare. He predicted consequences for all Montanans if “Congress gets its way” and repeals the Affordable Care Act.

A summary of what’s at risk for health care in Montana says people could pay more for their health care with an end to annual out-of-pocket limits, taxpayers would lose millions in savings from Medicaid expansion and Montanans might lose access to covered preventive services. People with pre-existing conditions could be disqualified, deductibles and co-pay costs could rise, and Montanans under the age of 26 would not be able to stay on their parents’ health plan. Insurance could charge women higher premiums than men and women could be charged out-of-pocket for contraception, annual exams and mammograms.

“It’s a time of uncertainty,” Tester said. “We’re going to do our best to ensure that folks have access to health care.”