A man who helps senior citizens fight off collection agencies that are wrongly pursuing unpaid bills wants the government to fix existing problems with Medicare billing before adding more people to government-run health care programs.
Proposals being considered by Congress to overhaul the health care system include a massive expansion of Medicaid, which is targeted to low-income Americans. Both Medicare and Medicaid are under government control, the primary difference being that Medicaid is geared toward the poor and is administered by the states with federal mandates. Medicare, on the other hand, is for the elderly and completely controlled by the federal government.
Woodrow Wilcox, who works with elderly clients at the Senior Care Insurance Services in Merrillville, Ind., says Washington shouldn't be tinkering with health care at all until it finds a way to stop going after seniors for bills they don't owe under Medicare.
"There are too many problems with Medicare not communicating to insurance companies correctly for the claims to be paid," he said. He estimates that, on average, he saves his clients $450 a day by correcting billing errors. Some people may be charged as little as $20 more than they should be billed and he's fought errors as high as $9,000 for a client in the past.
Mr. Wilcox says miscommunications between the two entities often result in a collection agency being brought in by Medicare to intimidate seniors into paying bills that they don't owe and that it's difficult to navigate the paper work needed to prove their case. But sometimes they get caught up between other government agencies. He cited a case he's working on now with a veteran who paid his bill to Medicare and has the cashed check to prove it, but is getting letters from the Department of Treasury saying his Social Security checks may soon be garnished as a result.
"Somebody just didn't record the check even though it went through," Mr. Wilcox exclaimed. "Senior citizens are seriously being badgered."
Sometimes it's easier for seniors to just pay the bill instead of getting help, too.
"They're being soaked for things they don't owe, but often they don't know how to read the forms or what little piece might be missing so they just end up paying the bill," he said. "But why should they?"
Mr. Wilcox has been keeping a record of the money he's saved seniors in Medicare bills at www.medicareproblems.net as well as his concerns with the existing system.
Good for the goose
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma called bluff on the Democrats' support for their own health care bill by challenging his colleagues on the Senate health committee to vote in favor of joining the program once enacted.
Mr. Coburn said, "what's good for the goose is good for the gander," and that "if Congress thinks a government-run plan is safe and effective for Americans, they should prove it with enrolling."
All the Republicans on the committee, except for New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, voted for the amendment, but only three of the panel's 13 Democratic caucus member joined them. The 10 others voted "nay," though the amendment thus passed by a 12-11 vote.
The Democratic senators who voted against it were Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patty Murray of Washington, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent but a member of the Democratic caucus, also opposed the bill.
Democrats who voted in favor of the amendment were: Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland.
The Congressional Budget Office issued its first score of the House Democrats' health care legislation Tuesday, pricing it at a whopping $1.042 trillion over the next 10 years although cautioning it was only an initial, incomplete cost estimate.
Republicans used this opportunity to remind that previous costs estimates of health care legislation have been grossly under calculated in the past. A chart from the Republican Party's Joint Economic Committee circulated on Capitol Hill among staff and given to The Washington Times contained several estimates by the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee about how much Medicare hospital insurance would cost, dating from Medicare's 1965 inception.
At that time, Congress said it would cost $9 billion annually by 1990. The actual cost of it in 1990 was $67 billion, almost eight times what Congress estimated. The same committee said the entire Medicare program would cost $12 billion in 1990. It ended up being more than nine times that much - $111 billion. More recently, in 2003, CBO estimated that the Medicare drug benefit, promoted by President George W. Bush, would cost $27.5 billion in 2006. They were closer to the mark this time, but still wrong; it cost $31.9 billion that year.
The Republican committee offered two reasons why the estimates were so far off, given that both the parties have made these mistakes in the past. First, "overly optimistic assumptions regarding changes in the behavior of health care and providers" and second, politics.
"While estimators may not consciously 'low-ball' the numbers, pressure from bill authors to 'keep the score down' may lead to unconscious assumptions favoring lower costs," the panel wrote.
Amanda Carpenter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.