Apr 25, 2024 - Health

GOP jumps on chance to bash Biden on Medicare

Illustration of a stethoscope with a vote button at the end

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans are needling the Biden administration over a recent cut to Medicare plans, indicating a fight over the program's future could play a bigger role in this year's election.

Why it matters: While the Biden campaign views its Medicare record as a strength with a key voting bloc, recent attacks suggest Republicans see an opportunity to harness voter anger over potential cutbacks to Medicare Advantage — a program that's increasingly popular with seniors.

Driving the news: The Biden administration this month said it would move forward with a planned 0.16% cut to private Medicare insurers' base pay next year, ignoring warnings from some major insurers they could drop plans or trim extra benefits that help make the program a big draw.

State of play: House Republicans' campaign arm in a new ad this week accused Biden of "ripping health care benefits away" from seniors," the Washington Times reported.

  • Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) accused Biden's top health official of "trying to destroy" Medicare Advantage during a recent hearing, while former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in a Wall Street Journal op-ed claimed that Biden is "steadily sabotaging" Medicare Advantage.
  • Biden's Medicare Advantage policy "will certainly be something Republicans discuss on the campaign trail," said Mike Berg, communications director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

The other side: Biden has been campaigning on Medicare policies that he says strengthen the program, including the first-ever drug price negotiations, a $35 monthly limit on insulin, and a cap on out-of-pocket costs — but voters have given him relatively little credit so far.

  • Democrats, meanwhile, have hit Republicans over their calls to undo Medicare price negotiations, and last month they seized on comments from former President Trump that appeared to suggest he was open to cutting Medicare and Social Security, which his campaign quickly sought to clear up.

A White House spokesperson said claims Biden is cutting Medicare are "categorically false."

  • The cut to the key Medicare Advantage rate is part of a phased-in effort to reduce how much more the government pays private insurers relative to the traditional program.
  • The administration projects Medicare plans will actually see an average 3.7% raise next year, or $16 billion, after adjusting pay to account for insurers who report having sicker customers.

Between the lines: It's not clear which party's messaging will resonate with voters most.

  • Some seniors may already feel the benefits of capped insulin costs, while Republican warnings about withering Medicare Advantage benefits are hypothetical, said Tricia Neuman, who heads Medicare policy at health care research nonprofit KFF.
  • "The truth is, I think it'll be hard for seniors to disentangle what they're hearing from candidates," she said.

She said insurers, who now cover more than half of Medicare enrollees, have a strong incentive to keep premiums low and preserve extra benefits to attract enrollees.

  • If insurers are in belt-tightening mode, they might make changes that are less visible to seniors, like more restrictive provider networks or tougher requirements for pre-treatment approvals known as prior authorization.

What we're watching: Seniors will get their first look at next year's Medicare Advantage plans in mid-October, just weeks before Election Day.

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