More Than 200 Legislators Urge CMS to Leave Medicare Advantage Rates Alone

Although the proposed cuts to the Medicare Advantage program announced last month were not as deep as some had feared, the opposition mounted by the insurance industry and legislators has been fierce.

On Thursday, 55 House Democrats joined nearly 150 House Republicans in signing a letter to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner urging her agency not to make the cuts proposed in the 2015 Medicare Advantage payments rates issued on Friday, February 21. (The letter was originally sent on Wednesday with nearly 200 signatures, but was resent the following day as more members asked to sign on.)

While CMS holds that these cuts are generally 2 percent or less, the insurance industry contends that in some instances, the cuts will be closer to 6 or 7 percent. This cost will in turn be passed down to seniors with Medicare Advantage plans in either the form of higher monthly premiums, narrower networks of providers, or both, insurers say.

Technically the Representatives letter was late. Comments on the rates had been due by March 7. However, with nearly 200 signatures of legislators with the power to vote to cut CMS’s funding, it is fairly safe to assume the letter will listened to.

Reps. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and John Barrow (D-Ga.) were the elected officials who organized the letter and helped collect the signatures of their colleagues. Although conservatives generally favor lower spending on entitlement programs, they see the private insurance Medicare Advantage option as a valuable protection of choice and competition in health care coverage for seniors. Democrats, on the other hand, point to the higher costs of the Medicare Advantage plans as waste in government spending and want to equalize what the government spends on Medicare Advantage and traditional fee-for-service Medicare.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act legally mandated $200 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage spending by 2019, so it will be hard for CMS to walk back the cut by April 7, when the final rates are due out. By law, the agency must make some cuts to the program and and cannot indefinitely delay doing so.

However, with midterm elections approaching, it is also a hard choice to move forward with the cuts now because it would make it look as if the administration was out to harm seniors. In a press release accompanying the sending of the letter, Rep. Cassidy did not mince words in making that point.

"The Obama administration's cuts to Medicare Advantage are an attack on Louisiana's seniors who rely on, and have paid into, this quality coverage option," he stated. "Victims of Obamacare's broken promises, seniors will face limited coverage options and increased out of pocket costs due to these cuts. Bipartisan support to keep payment rates steady shows that Congress must fight for policies that help individuals, not threaten their access to quality care."

This article was updated at 2:15 p.m. EST on March 14, 2014, to reflect the letter to CMS having been resent with additional signatures.