Should seniors on Medicare and those about to join the program be worried about benefit cuts? That was an issue in the midterm elections, when the GOP positioned itself as champions for the senior set, and painted Democrats as the bad guys. Last week Politico’s Brett Coughlin broke news when he asked House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer whether Democrats could be counted on to protect Medicare benefits and control premium increases. Said Hoyer:

“It is our belief that you can—as was done in 1983 on Social Security—and as we are committed to doing, we can adjust Medicare provisions, and we can adjustment those in the future, and perhaps we can make some adjustments for present recipients.”

Adjustments? How’s that for euphemistic code speak? What adjustments did a top Dem have in mind? Was he signaling benefit cuts for the “present recipients,” or not? If so, then current beneficiaries need to take note and think about how they will pay for their medical care should Congress go along with any cuts. The press has to tell them, though. The MSM apparently hasn’t yet realized that perhaps Medicare isn’t as sacred as the Dems made it out to be on the campaign trail. Hoyer amplified his thinking for Politico:

“We want to make sure that the benefits that are available to recipients, which they need are protected, so within that context, just as we did with Social Security in 1983, we need to address Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, to ensure their continued availability and sustainability over the long term.”

Do Hoyer’s adjustments signal more means testing? As Campaign Desk has noted several times, wealthier seniors already are paying higher premiums for Part B, which covers physician and hospital outpatient services, and for Part D, the drug benefit. The percentage of “wealthier” recipients paying higher monthly Part B premiums is expected to jump from about five percent to about fourteen percent by the end of the decade, and the percentage of those paying a higher Part D premium will also triple over that period.

Apparently some seniors are beginning to note that they must pay higher premiums, and have been asking why. That prompted Medicare officials to send a memo to insurance companies that provide the privatized drug benefit to help them answer customers’ questions.

Did Hoyer mean that beneficiaries with more income would get fewer benefits? Many experts believe that would turn Medicare into a welfare program like food stamps and Medicaid instead of social insurance, where everyone is entitled to a basic benefit as a matter of right.

Coughlin tried to pin down Hoyer and asked if he supported the recommendations of the president’s now-defunct deficit commission chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Those recommendations call for cutting Medicare by another $400 billion. The health reform law already cut $500 billion from the program, mostly in the form of cuts to hospitals and sellers of Medicare Advantage plans. The Simpson-Bowles blueprint also would prohibit Medigap plans—which most beneficiaries buy to cover what Medicare doesn’t—from covering some of Medicare’s gaps. That, of course, means beneficiaries must dig deeper into their own pockets to pay their doctors. The new law already requires that insurance regulators come up with a scheme to make seniors cover more of their medical costs if they buy Medigap policies Plans C and F—the two most popular plans.

FYI: Hoyer gave Coughlin the same blah-blah answer to questions about the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. He said that he wasn’t going to “specifically adopt any particular proposal,” adding that “ some will have greater support than others.” No kidding!

There are two kinds of stories we see here. One is the political story. Are Democrats—the traditional champions of benefits for the little people, aka Social Security and Medicare—trading places with Republicans? The second is the good old informational story of super interest to readers, listeners, and viewers.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.