by Martin Hamlette, JD, MHA
It will be years before we learn all the lessons of the COVID crisis, but some are coming into view even now. This pandemic has not hit all communities equally. As we recover, policymakers have a responsibility to avoid the mistakes of the past. Congress is considering historic investments in the social safety net. As they do so, those investments should not be paid for by cuts to programs that help minority communities.
One program that Black and Brown Americans increasingly rely upon is Medicare Advantage, the privately run alternative to fee-for-service Medicare. This program has better health outcomes and advances equity better than traditional Medicare for racial and ethnic minority communities. That is why people of color now make up 32% of the Medicare Advantage population, compared to the 21% enrolled in traditional Medicare. Still, some in Congress are considering cutting Medicare Advantage to pay for a new social spending program.
As Executive Director of the National Medical Association – the largest and oldest national organization representing African American physicians and their patients – I’m particularly concerned about this development. Minority communities rely on Medicare Advantage because it delivers them better access to care at a better value than traditional Medicare. Making cuts to Medicare Advantage would disproportionately harm underserved populations who seek out the program for higher quality care and innovative benefits at an affordable cost.
Lawmakers are also considering adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits to traditional Medicare. That’s a good thing. However, if they do so without regard for the 27 million Medicare Advantage beneficiaries who already have these benefits, it could pit seniors against each other. When making changes that can impact millions – and when community risks are unequal – Congress must be careful not to disadvantage MA participants. Changes must be made in an equitable way that preserves the guaranteed defined benefit for all beneficiaries.
Medicare Advantage also offers health care choices to populations that all too frequently face wide disparities in coverage, outcomes, and options. Those who choose Medicare Advantage have an array of choices, benefits and services at different price points. They have more control over their health care rather than being shepherded into a “one-size-fits-all” plan or risking gaps in coverage.
Medicare Advantage enrollees have access to additional benefits such as meals, medication deliveries, transportation assistance and telemedicine – all of which have been vital during the pandemic and have made it easier for enrollees to effectively access care while remaining safely in their homes and communities.
Medicare Advantage is also saving money for seniors, upwards of $1,640 in total savings, covering both out-of-pocket costs and premiums compared to traditional Medicare. This is huge for the 40% of Medicare Advantage enrollees who make less than $25,000 annually.
But, according to a new study from Wakely Consulting Group, if Congress is careless in making changes to Medicare, Medicare Advantage enrollees could lose over $1,000 per year in supplemental benefits, including those that mitigate the social factors that affect people’s health and well-being.
Medicare Advantage has enjoyed significant bipartisan, bicameral support in Washington because of the satisfaction it provides lawmakers’ constituents. But that support is being tested now, and racial and ethnic minorities are counting on their member of Congress to protect Medicare Advantage.
I urge our Congressional leaders to talk with their colleagues to ensure that they do not make any payment cuts to the Medicare Advantage program that could reduce benefits or increase cost-sharing for people who have chosen this important program, particularly people of color.
I urge other members of Congress to join them and vote with these communities and these citizens in mind. There are 27 million Americans, including so many in underserved populations, who are counting on our leaders to rectify the historic and systemic inequities of the past, learn from the unequal impacts of the pandemic and craft policies that lift communities up now and into the future.
Martin Hamlett is Executive Director of the National Medical Association, the oldest and largest organization representing African American physicians and the leading force for equity in medicine