BANGOR, Maine — It was 45 years ago today that President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation creating the Medicare health coverage programs for Americans age 65 and older.
On Thursday, balloons, birthday cards and a giant birthday cake marked the anniversary and drew about 100 senior citizens and health care advocates to a celebratory luncheon at First United Methodist Church on Essex Street.
Hosted by a handful of health care and advocacy organizations, the event provided an opportunity to highlight some of the changes in the program related to the recent passage of national health care reform legislation.
Those changes include the gradual elimination of the unpopular coverage gap in the prescription drug part of Medicare; free annual wellness visits and cancer screenings; improved coordination of health care services; more effective management of chronic conditions and more. Already, Americans who fall into the so-called “doughnut hole” coverage gap are automatically receiving a $250 rebate.
During after-lunch presentations, Christie Hager of the regional office of the federal Department of Health and Human Services in Boston, said that beginning next year Medicare enrollees can receive free wellness checks, mammograms and colonoscopies, with no co-payment required. She stressed that enrollees also will continue to enjoy the same guaranteed benefits currently in place, as well as be able to choose their health care provider. And she said the health reform would save money in the program, helping to ensure its long-term viability.
Critics of the reform legislation have pointed out that some private Medicare plans, known as Medicare Advantage plans, likely will cease to provide extra benefits such as eyeglasses and other services, and that some physicians and hospitals may see reduced Medicare reimbursements.
Joe Ditre, executive director of the Augusta-based advocacy program Consumers for Affordable Health Care, said many Mainers look forward to the day they turn 65 and are old enough to be eligible for Medicare. Especially in recent years, he said, the government program has provided welcome respite from the turmoil of the private health insurance market.
Medicaid, established by the same legislation that created Medicare, also has proven its value, Ditre said. Medicare and Medicaid provide “affordable, quality care in a fair and equitable way,” he said.
Changes ahead promise to make things even better for Medicare patients, Ditre said, while strengthening the long-term viability of the program. For example, improving the way doctors communicate and coordinate their services has the potential to save billions in the Medicare budget by eliminating unneeded hospitalizations, he said.
Betty Balderston of the Augusta-based nonprofit Legal Services for the Elderly said Maine seniors must be vigilant against Medicare fraud. They should keep a written record of their medical care and check their quarterly statements carefully to be sure they have not been billed for services they didn’t receive, she said.
In addition, Balderston cautioned her audience against scammers, especially noting that the $250 “doughnut hole” rebate will be generated automatically for seniors who qualify. If seniors receive calls asking for personal information or bank account numbers so they can receive that rebate, she said, “that’s a scam.”
More information about changes in Medicare is available by contacting the Eastern Area Agency on Aging online at www.eaaa.org or by telephone at 800-432-7812.