Medicare has now been providing much-needed medical benefits for Americans aged 65 and older for well over half a century: the entitlement program turned 56 on July 30th. To illustrate just how important Medicare has been for seniors in this country, consider this: before Medicare, almost half of Americans 65 or older couldn’t afford health insurance. But as great as Medicare has been, it still falls a little short for many people; for example, vision, dental, and hearing are not covered as essential benefits. But there might be good news on that front! Democrats plan to use their multi-trillion-dollar spending proposal to expand Medicare benefits, and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is hoping to continue the expansion of telehealth.
Crafting The Spending Bill
Congressional Democrats are currently planning to use their multi-trillion-dollar spending proposal to finally expand Medicare for seniors. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stated that the Budget Committee’s $3.5 trillion plan will include hearing, dental, and vision coverage for the first time ever.
“We have ways that we can expand Medicare services, and in fact, we must because we know it’s to our own benefit to provide these preventative services as early as possible to our seniors,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said at the Senate Finance Committee hearing, noting that reducing prescription drug prices should be considered as well. “So we’re looking forward to working with you to make sure that we continue to make Medicare even better and where we go, I know that really will depend on Congress, but we’re ready. We want to make it work.”
This is a much-needed expansion, because thousands of older Americans struggle with vision, hearing, and dental issues. In fact, based on a 2018 Commonwealth Fund report:
- 43% of seniors with vision issues did not have an eye exam in the past year
- 75% who needed a hearing aid did not get one
- 70% who have difficulty eating because of dental problems had not visited a dentist in the past year
In addition to the expansions that Congress is proposing, the CMS is also proposing expanding until the end of 2023 Medicare coverage for the telehealth services that were in use during the Covid-19 crisis, in order to determine if the services should be permanently covered.
“Over the past year, the public health emergency has highlighted the disparities in the U.S. healthcare system, while at the same time demonstrating the positive impact of innovative policies to reduce these disparities,” CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure said in a statement. “CMS aims to take the lessons learned during this time and move forward toward a system where no patient is left out and everyone has access to comprehensive quality health services.”
CMS also wants mental health care to be provided on an audio-only basis moving forward, as a test case to determine how efficient this care could be for helping seniors with mental health issues, as well as to determine whether it would result in better health equity. Lawmakers and patient advocates support the change, but would like to see it become a permanent situation.
Big changes are hopefully coming in the near future for older Americans, many of whom have been silently suffering due to insufficient health care coverage.