Health care bills may benefit seniors, panelists say

WILLIAMSBURG — Seniors stand to benefit from expanded long-term services and medication discounts in the proposed health reform legislation, panelists said during a forum Thursday.Jennifer Mellor, Director of the Schroeder Center

About 250 people attended "Healthcare Reform 2009: What does it mean for Medicare and Medicaid?" at the College of William and Mary. The Schroeder Center for Health Policy and the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy hosted the forum.

Several versions of health reform are being considered. A House version includes the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports, or CLASS Act, for short. It provides for long-term care insurance that will help people remain independent and out of nursing homes, said Dr. Christine J. Jensen, of the Center for Excellence in Aging and Geriatric Health in James City County. It could potentially reduce the deficit by $73 billion over 10 years, she said.

The Senate Finance Committee bill includes the Independence at Home Pilot Program. That would bring primary care service by way of house calls to the highest-cost Medicare beneficiaries, the ones who have multiple chronic problems, to cut down on costly emergency-room visits, Jensen said.

Proposed reforms would also reduce the "Donut Hole" in Medicare Part D. The bills provide discounts for those who use up their prescription drug coverage and must pay out of pocket, said John Littel, executive vice president of Virginia Beach-based Amerigroup, a health-insurance company.

"That's meaningful change for a lot of people," he said.John Littel of AMERIGROUP

The bills do away with controversial health insurance practices, such as excluding people with pre-existing conditions, Littel said.

The biggest and most costly component of reform is the expansion of public health programs, Littel said.

The bills propose offering Medicaid to anyone who has an income up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level. Adults with incomes between 100 percent and 133 percent of the poverty level could obtain coverage through Medicaid or, with federal subsidies, through an insurance exchange. That exchange includes a government-run health insurance plan, or public option, Littel said.

How to pay the estimated $900 billion reform is still up in the air. States might be left holding the tab, Littel said.

Panelists agreed that legislators will make some changes to the nation's health-care system, but those changes will take years to trickle down to health consumers. The expansion of Medicaid and the creation of a health insurance exchange won't likely happen until 2013 or 2014, Littel said.

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