Responding to pressure from seniors’ and labor groups as the 2016 campaign season heats up, congressional leaders and the White House have blocked a huge, 50 percent increase in the Medicare Part B premium for nearly one third of the 50 million elderly Americans who depend on the program for health services.
The bipartisan solution will block all but a tiny fraction of the premium increase. It is contained in the two-year budget and debt ceiling bill negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and the White House and that awaits ratification by the two chambers – likely by the end of this week.
The threatened sharp premium increase – reported back in August by The Fiscal Times – was triggered by a quirk in federal law that penalizes wealthier Medicare beneficiaries, newcomers to the program and lower income Americans with complicated chronic health problems. It kick in any time the Social Security Administration fails to approve an annual cost-of-living adjustment – as will be the case next year.
Medicare Part B and the Social Security trust fund are interconnected, and most seniors on Medicare have their monthly premiums deducted from their Social Security checks. Because the federal law “holds harmless” about 70 percent of Medicare recipients from premium increases to cover unexpected increases in healthcare costs, the remaining 30 percent of Medicare Part B beneficiaries suffer the consequences by being made to pay higher premiums.
Without intervention by Congress, roughly 15 million seniors and chronically ill people currently claiming both Medicare and Medicaid coverage would have seen their premiums increase from $104.90 per month to $159.30 for individuals, according to Medicare actuaries. The actuaries also predicted an increase in the annual deductible for Part B of Medicare, from $147 in 2015 to $223 next year.
Estimates of the cost of legislation to blunt or block a premium increase have ranged from $7.5 billion to $10 billion. Under the budget agreement unveiled late last night, that cost will be covered by a loan of general revenue from the U.S. Treasury to the Supplemental Medical Insurance Trust Fund.
In order to repay that loan, the 15 million people who are not subject to the “hold harmless” protection will be required to pay an additional $3 a month in premiums – a token amount -- until the loan is repaid years from now, according to a House budget document describing the deal. Medicare beneficiaries who currently pay higher income-related premiums would pay more than $3, based on their income levels.
If there is no Social Security cost of living adjustment increase for 2017, this provision will apply again.