July 20, 2016

Now is the time to expand Medicare

The following article, published in the Washington Public Employees Council Summer 2016 newsletter, was written by their Executive Director Maria Britton Sipe, an Executive Board member of WSARA-EF.

Medicare 50th

The time is now to move federal legislation to expand Medicare to include dental, vision, and hearing aids.  The political climate, with elections nearing, creates an opening where legislators would not want to vote against a bill that could help so many seniors, a strong political block.

14-term Congressman Jim McDermott, who has announced his intention to retire at the end of this year, has decided to go out with a bang.  He introduced the Medicare, Dental, Vision, and Hearing Benefit Act of 2016 (H.R. 5396) on June 7th that would amend Medicare Part B to include coverage for routine and major dental care, refractive eye exams, hearing exams and coverage for items such as hearing aids.

Medicare currently offers little to no coverage for many dental, vision, and hearing expenses which has led to severe consequences both for beneficiaries and the Medicare budget.  The lack of dental care is directly tied to numerous health problems resulting in significant health care costs.  These include potentially fatal conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetic complications and oral cancers.  Dementia has also been tied to dental care through a bacteria resulting from gingivitis may enter the brain through either nerve channels in the head or through the bloodstream, that might even lead to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Vision disorders left untreated greatly increase the risk of costly hospitalizations due to injuries associated with falls.  Hearing loss, which is pervasive among beneficiaries, often leads to social isolation, depression, and cognitive impairments.  If treated, this could potentially reduce Medicare costs.  In order to both control costs and facilitate implementation, benefits will be subject to reasonable limitations and will be phased in gradually over several years.

Rep. McDermott wields considerable authority as the Ranking Member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health.  When introducing the bill, McDermott stated, “All too often at this committee our policy discussions focus on how much we can cut from Medicare and how to further shift the cost onto beneficiaries”. “In the process we fail to recognize the possibilities before us and the enormous power we wield.”

First elected to Congress in 1988, McDermott, a former state legislator and Navy psychiatrist, honed a reputation as a health-care policy wonk, and he believes that it is time for us to unite to move this legislation.

The Alliance for Retired Americans is therefore leading efforts across the county to meet with every member of Congress to discuss H.R. 5396.  In Washington, we will be working with the many other organizations, under the umbrella of the Washington State Alliance for Retired Americans, to set up meetings.  In addition, we need to continue applying our immense political pressure with phone calls and emails to let them know that this legislation is important to us.

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