Health insurers, lawmakers and the CMS are accusing one another of playing politics with Medicare beneficiaries.
Humana ordered to halt 'scare tactic' mailings
Last week, the CMS ordered Humana to halt a mailing to Medicare enrollees that claimed they could see their benefits cut under healthcare reform. The agency opened an investigation into the Louisville, Ky.-based insurer and subsequently ordered all other insurers to refrain from similar mailings.
A Humana spokesman said it is cooperating with the investigation, but the major lobbying group for insurers and some top Republican members of Congress cried foul.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Senate Republicans told HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a letter they would block future HHS nominee confirmations unless the agency reverses course. There are at least 10 open vacancies at the HHS that require Senate confirmation, according to McConnell’s office, including CMS administrator.
“Health plans, of course, have the right to speak on matters of public concern, a fundamental principle that your department, until recently, recognized and respected,” McConnell and others said in the letter.
The main lobbying group for health insurers concurred. “Seniors have a right to know how the current reform proposals will affect the coverage they currently like and rely on,” said Robert Zirkelbach, spokesman for America’s Health Insurance Plans, the trade group. He added that the CMS action amounted to a “gag order” and that any cuts to Medicare Advantage would have a “devastating impact on the health security of more than 10 million seniors enrolled in the program.”
Health reform proposals moving through Congress include cuts to the federal subsidies health insurers get to provide Medicare Advantage plans, an alternative to traditional fee-for-service Medicare in place since 2004.
Some members of Congress and President Barack Obama support ending these subsidies and instead use the money to expand access to the uninsured. Medicare Advantage plans this year will receive $11.4 billion more in extra payments above the cost of traditional fee-for-service Medicare, up 34% from 2008, according to a Commonwealth Fund report.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), asked the CMS last week to investigate Humana after the letter the insurer sent to beneficiaries came to his attention. Baucus, who called the letter a “scare tactic,” chairs the Senate Finance Committee and introduced a long-awaited healthcare reform proposal on Sept. 16. The Baucus bill includes $125.5 billion in cuts to Medicare Advantage and limits cost-sharing for chemotherapy and other treatments.
An amendment to the Baucus bill introduced by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) last week sought to shield health insurers from federal repercussions for mailings to enrollees. The measure called such communications First Amendment rights of insurers but failed along party lines in a committee vote.
The CMS said the mailings could violate federal privacy laws and terms of federal contracts.
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