- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Millions of seniors in popular private insurance plans offered through Medicare will be getting a reprieve from some of the most controversial cuts in President Obama’s health care law.

In a policy shift critics see as political, the Department of Health and Human Services has decided to award quality bonuses to hundreds of Medicare Advantage plans rated merely average.

The $6.7 billion infusion could head off service cuts that would have been a headache for Mr. Obama and Democrats in next year’s elections for the White House and Congress. More than half the roughly 11 million Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans rated average.

In a recent letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, two prominent GOP lawmakers questioned what they termed the administration’s “newfound support” for Medicare Advantage.

The shift “may represent a thinly veiled use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes,” wrote Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, and Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican. Mr. Camp chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Medicare. Mr. Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican more >

Seniors are among the deepest skeptics of the new health care law. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 62 percent disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of health care, as compared with a 52 percent approval among Americans overall. The poll also found that seniors are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats on the issue by a 51 percent to 36 percent margin.

The insurance industry says the bonuses will turn what would have averaged out as a net cut for Medicare Advantage plans in 2012 into a slight increase.

The administration says the reason for the bonuses is quality improvement, not politics.

“We are looking at whether an alternative payment incentive structure would lead to broader quality improvements across all Medicare Advantage plans, by giving incentives for a broader range of plans to improve,” Medicare spokesman Brian Cook said.

Medicare covers seniors and disabled people. About one-fourth of beneficiaries are signed up in Medicare Advantage plans that offer lower out-of-pocket costs and more comprehensive benefits than the traditional program. Some of the heaviest enrollment is in states considered political battlegrounds, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado.

The health care law cut $145 billion over 10 years from Medicare Advantage, partly to correct a widely acknowledged problem with overpayments to the plans. Those cuts start off modestly in 2012 and build up. Insurers were expected to shift the burden to beneficiaries in the form of fewer services and higher out-of-pocket costs, triggering an exodus back to traditional Medicare.

“The net result is that the boat didn’t get rocked,” said independent analyst Dan Mendelson, president of the information firm Avalere Health. “It’s fair to say that (Medicare) could not tolerate dislocation, given the political climate.”

But Mr. Mendelson also said he agrees with the administration that the new money will get more plans thinking about how to improve quality if they want to remain profitable.

“They are giving the plans training wheels to improve their quality,” he said.

The health care law itself tried to soften the impact of Medicare Advantage cuts by providing quality bonuses for highly-rated plans that received four or five stars in a government grading system.

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