The Washington Times - September 19, 2012, 01:20PM

The federal government said Wednesday it expects the Medicare Advantage program to grow more popular and premiums to remain steady next year, even as the program remains at the center of a fierce political battle.

Enrollment in Medicare Advantage, which offers seniors the option of obtaining subsidized coverage through private insurers, is projected to grow by 11 percent in 2013, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.


And monthly premiums are expected to inch up only by $1.47 on average, bringing the program’s average monthly payment to $32.59.

The Obama administration has been crediting the president’s 2010 health care law for the program’s growing popularity. Since the law was passed, enrollment has risen by 28 percent while premiums have fallen by 10 percent. About one-fourth of seniors currently participate in the program.

“Since the law was enacted in 2010, average premiums have gone down, enrollment has gone up, and new benefits and lower drug costs continue to help millions of seniors and people with disabilities,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

But the administration has faced criticism for how it has handled a Medicare Advantage bonus program created under the health care law.

The bonuses were supposed to award only high-performing plans, but officials extended it to middle-of-the-road plans as well, which had the effect of spreading out the benefits to more seniors and delaying the health care law’s planned cuts to Medicare Advantage.

After the Government Accountability Office deemed the bonus program wasteful earlier this year, Republicans accused the administration of trying to hide flaws in the health care law as Mr. Obama runs for re-election.

The administration’s Wednesday announcement prompted more criticisms from Republicans, with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, calling the administration’s statement “misleading” because most of the Medicare Advantage cuts have yet to take effect.