Column: What COVID-19 is teaching us about how to reform Medicare

CHICAGO (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic has put a brilliant highlight on weaknesses in most of the methods designed to guard Americans from dangers. But with older individuals extra prone to critical sickness and loss of life from the virus, the issues in our Medicare system that have been evident pre-pandemic have come into particularly sharp reduction.

FILE PHOTO: Participants maintain indicators as Democratic U.S. presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at a information convention to introduce the “Medicare for All Act of 2019” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Medicare reform can be on the agenda in Washington after the pandemic recedes – if nothing else, the looming exhaustion of the Hospital Insurance belief fund in 2026 have to be addressed ( But there is also rising help for a post-pandemic drive for Medicare for All, or no less than to broaden Medicare by decreasing the present eligibility age of 65 ( 

With that in thoughts, this can be a good time to contemplate how Medicare could possibly be improved.


Medicare performs a crucial position regulating and funding nursing houses, paying for care in expert nursing services for as much as 100 days throughout every spell of sickness. During the COVID-19 disaster, the principles for protecting care have been relaxed, however the massive headlines have targeted on the sky-high an infection and loss of life charges in nursing houses.

This just isn’t a brand new drawback. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported lately ( that 82% of nursing services nationwide have been cited with an infection management deficiencies in a number of years between 2013 and 2017, with 48% cited in a number of years. 

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which runs Medicare, reoriented its inspection practices round an infection management in March, however state surveys nonetheless are discovering compliance issues with hand hygiene, correct use of private protecting tools and isolating contaminated sufferers (

“This crisis has underscored the incredible need for quality healthcare and good coverage for all citizens, but particularly for people who are older, have disabilities and need longer-term or chronic care,” mentioned Judith Stein, founder and government director of the Center for Medicare Advocacy (CMA). 


Medicare is quietly being privatized. Medicare Advantage – the privately supplied different to conventional Medicare – is on monitor to cowl 47% of all enrollees in 2029, up from 34% this 12 months, based on a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) evaluation of Congressional Budget Office projections ( And all prescription drug protection is obtainable by personal insurers by way of Medicare-sponsored marketplaces.

Critics query the effectiveness of outsourcing a lot of Medicare protection to business insurers ( Enrollees should navigate tons of of plan selections that must be re-evaluated recurrently, but many have important, advanced healthcare wants, and a few have cognitive impairments that make procuring tough.

In some circumstances, the enjoying area for personal plans and unique Medicare is uneven. For instance, Advantage plans should cap an enrollee’s annual out-of-pocket bills at $6,700, and most have decrease caps, averaging $5,059 final 12 months for in-network providers, based on KFF. But in unique Medicare, you will get out-of-pocket protections solely by including supplemental protection, usually a business Medigap plan. And right here, there’s a main catch. The finest time to purchase a Medigap plan – and sometimes the one time – is if you first join Medicare.

Medigap plans can’t reject you, or cost a better premium, due to pre-existing circumstances through the six months after you first join Part B (outpatient providers). In most states, you could be rejected or charged extra after that point.

This restricted “guaranteed issue” safety successfully makes an preliminary choice to select a Medicare Advantage plan a everlasting choice for a lot of enrollees. 

Medicare Advantage is a managed care providing, which suggests your in-network healthcare supplier selections are restricted – and that may be an issue when critical healthcare points come up. Medicare tacitly acknowledged that drawback lately when it relaxed community guidelines for COVID-19 care. 

Meanwhile, 6 million unique Medicare enrollees haven’t any supplemental insurance coverage, based on KFF. During the COVID-19 disaster, which means a hospitalization would go away them weak to the usual Part A deductible of $1,408 for every keep, and every day co-payments for stays exceeding 60 days.


Many seniors are shocked to be taught that Medicare doesn’t cowl routine dental, imaginative and prescient or listening to care – a spot that dates to the preliminary definition of healthcare protection that didn’t embody these providers. “Since then, we’ve learned otherwise,” mentioned Stein. “Certainly oral health is extremely important systemically, and we’re even learning that untreated hearing loss can increase things like falls and dementia.”

Many Advantage plans supply some stage of dental, imaginative and prescient and listening to protection – though you will need to look fastidiously on the particulars of what’s included ( But leaving “eyes, ears and mouth” uncovered in unique Medicare – which nonetheless accounts for two-thirds of enrollment – is mindless. 


When Medicare prescription drug insurance coverage was created in 2003, the concept that beneficiaries with very excessive drug prices ought to decide up 5% of the tab appeared cheap – however that was nicely earlier than specialty medicine have been invented that carry worth tags within the tens of 1000’s of {dollars}. And some specialty-tier medicine aren’t lined by Part D plans.

It is nicely previous time for an out-of-pocket cap on prescription drug prices.


Before the COVID-19 emergency, Medicare protection of telehealth providers – the place suppliers present care through a video or cellphone link-up – was very restricted. Coverage has been expanded through the disaster, and the usage of telehealth providers can play a helpful position in Medicare going ahead. But we might want to spell out considerate insurance policies that guarantee equitable use of telehealth. “I’m concerned that the telehealth reforms could be good but a slippery slope if it leads to less care being available for some, and in-person care being available for others,” mentioned Stein.

For extra on Medicare reform, take a look at my podcast interview this week with Judith Stein of the Center for Medicare Advocacy (

(The opinions expressed listed below are these of the writer, a columnist for Reuters.)

Reporting by Mark Miller in Chicago; Editing by Matthew Lewis


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