There’s a new twist to this year’s campaign. Angst over narrow networks has understandably hit the senior set, and they are complaining, as Rep. Rooney noted in his Saturday chat. In December, Susan Jaffe reported for Kaiser Health News that UnitedHealthcare, the biggest seller of Medicare Advantage plans, was dropping hundreds of doctors from its plans to slow down increases in medical costs and “sustain our plans in an era of Medicare Advantage funding cuts.” A few days later, Jaffe reported a federal judge in Connecticut had temporarily blocked United from dropping more than 2000 docs in the state. The Washington Post hopped on the story in late January, reporting that while some beneficiaries might be unhappy, smaller networks will lead to better patient care because health plans will work more closely with doctors. Who knows if that will happen, or if it’s just a quote that sounds good to reporters.
What’s more certain is that the cuts and narrow networks are tied up with Obamacare, and in an election year they will build a “pretty powerful frame,” as Harvard pollster Robert Blendon told Politico (behind Politico Pro paywall). “It’s [Medicare cuts] not going to be a politically popular thing, and it’s going to be wrapped around a Republican criticism of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. That itself is a good story—a political one that offers a chance again to explain the difference between cuts and savings, and examine the cross-subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. But there’s more. It’s also a story about the bottom lines of insurance companies who want to make sure Medicare Advantage plans are super attractive to seniors—meaning, low premiums and lots of benefits which extra government payments have historically paid for. Last year, John Wasik, writing for the now-defunct Medicare News group, noted that while the insurance industry prefers to focus on what “cuts” might cost seniors, the industry’s own financial interests would run something like $11 billion in 2014. This year the numbers may be different, but the back story is the same. Reporters need to put the talking points in context and honestly explain to seniors what’s at stake for them.
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