By Sharmina Manandhar and Megan E. Gustafson
SILVER SPRING – Vice President Joseph Biden sought to allay the fears of seniors Wednesday, assuring them that their Medicare benefits are safe — and will be stronger — under the administration’s health care reform plan.
In a town-hall-style event at the senior-citizen development Leisure World, his second in Maryland on health care in two days, Biden said “not a single dollar” will be taken from the Medicare Trust Fund under President Obama’s reform plan.
“Barack and I are absolutely, totally committed to Medicare,” said Biden, adding that securing the trust fund and making sure it’s available for the next generations is a priority for the administration.
President Obama said, in a joint session of Congress two weeks ago, those who have insurance they like can keep it and that it will be more secure and stable.
Biden said the president’s plan would decrease out-of-pocket costs for seniors, provide greater access to preventive care and remove barriers between them and their doctors.
Medicare is expected to spend $6.3 trillion over the next 10 years, and Obama’s health reform would seek to find savings of almost $500 billion by doing three things: slashing a “superpremium” paid to participants in Medicare Advantage, dropping subsidies to hospitals less burdened by uninsured patients who would be covered under health reform, and rooting out waste and abuse, Biden said.
Joining Biden were Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and White House Director of the Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle.
Sebelius provided more details on the impact of cracking down on fraud within Medicare, saying that her office “identifed, prosecuted and returned to the system” $3 billion in just the last eight months. She also cited a new report released by her department that seeks to show seniors how health reform will help them.
Biden also addressed the so-called “doughnut hole” in Medicare drug benefits that causes beneficiaries to pay out of pocket for drugs after exceeding their allowances, and before catastrophic drug coverage kicks in.
In response to an audience question about the costs of prescription drugs, Biden said that health reform will seek to close the “doughnut hole” by first paying half of seniors’ out-of-pocket drug expenses, and gradually seeking to close the hole completely.
DeParle added: “We know seniors need help and we’re committed to getting the doughnut hole filled.”
Persistent rumors of government “death panels” charged with making life and death decisions for the insured, did not cause the outbursts and protests as they have in earlier town hall meetings. Biden called the concept “a bunch of malarkey” and “scare tactic,” and no one disputed that.
In fact, Wednesday’s event was a civil, even jovial, affair attended by more than 100 seniors and many prominent Maryland elected officials, including Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington.
“Medicare benefits will not be cut, period, exclamation point,” said Van Hollen.
Cardin echoed that, saying, “Health reform strengthens Medicare” and provides specific benefits for seniors.
Leisure World resident Don Eisen said his greatest concern about health reform is “getting it passed.” The 72-year-old said he trusts the government more than he trusts the private marketplace with his health care and believes that health care for everyone is a “moral obligation.”
Though seniors there said they were still unsure of the specifics of the health reform after the discussion, many were glad to be acknowledged by Biden as a “powerful group.”
“Leisure World has 8,500 residents and they vote,” said Bob Stromberg, 84, underscoring the role of senior citizens in the health care debate. Stromberg, covered by a combination of Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield, which he said provides him with “excellent access” to doctors, came to the discussion with concerns that included increased wait times to see doctors.
“Seriously, no joking around, how is this going to affect Medicare,” Stromberg said.
The rest of the state cares, too, but remains divided. According to a new Gonzales poll, the large majority of Marylanders think the country needs some kind of health care reform but only 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling reform.