Updated at 12:10 p.m.
With $85 billion in automatic federal spending cuts set to take effect on Friday and predictions of economic disruption, much of official Washington is focused on the “blame game.” Publicly, there has been no sign that Congress or administration officials has made any progress on averting these cuts or finding common ground on tackling the country’s fiscal problems.
But there are small signs that Democrats and Republicans are beginning to wrestle with the issue of what role Medicare should play in deficit reduction. Three Capitol Hill committees with jurisdiction over health care have scheduled hearings this week to examine Medicare’s current benefit design and to review provisions in the 2010 health care law aimed at making the program more efficient.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said the “biggest driver” of the nation’s long term debt is the rising cost of health care for an aging population. “And those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms – otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations,” he said.
The House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee’s Tuesday hearing will focus on Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service program “and consider ideas to update and improve the benefit structure to better meet the needs of current and future beneficiaries,” according to a news release.
Subcommittee chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, said the hearing would help the panel “investigate the limitations, inefficiencies and inadequacies of traditional Medicare’s cost-sharing structure and identify ways to bring the Medicare program in to the 21st Century.”
That hearing follows a speech earlier this month, in which House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., signaled a new GOP strategy on Medicare. He called for several changes to fee-for-service Medicare, which provides coverage to about three-quarters of the 49 million Medicare beneficiaries. “We should begin by ending the arbitrary division between Part A, the hospital program, and Part B, the doctor services,” Cantor said. “We can create reasonable and predictable levels of out-of-pocket expenses without forcing seniors to rely on Medigap plans.”
The Senate Aging Committe will also explore some options to bolster Medicare’s financing without reducing benefits and will look at public sentiments about the program.
On Thursday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is convening a hearing to examine programs in the health law designed to make Medicare and Medicaid more efficient and affordable. The law includes provisions that shift payment to the quality – rather than the quantity – of care delivered. The law also encourages hospitals and doctors to cut readmission rates “by making sure early treatments are effective and by reducing preventable adverse events like infections that often result in a second, costly hospital stay,” according to a news release.
The panel will get a progress report from Jonathan Blum, the acting principal deputy administrator and director of the Center of Medicare, a division of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).