Congress quietly sets a new bipartisan record on health care

High support for Medicare Advantage defies otherwise polarizing times

The overwhelming support in Congress for Medicare Advantage offers us a lesson on the future of health care and where lawmakers can find common ground, Schwartz writes.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The overwhelming support in Congress for Medicare Advantage offers us a lesson on the future of health care and where lawmakers can find common ground, Schwartz writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 21, 2020 at 6:00am

OPINION — “Divided new Congress is getting little accomplished,” reads an April 2019 article in the Los Angeles Times. Similar headlines appeared every so often during my decade in Congress too. It is a popular, if not always accurate, narrative.

The current divided Congress voted overwhelmingly to provide permanent funding to historically black colleges and universities, took action on the youth tobacco crisis, expanded funding for federally qualified health centers, enacted a bipartisan two-year spending deal and fully repealed the harmful health insurance tax that threatened to raise costs for 142 million Americans.

Just this month, Congress took another notable — and largely overlooked — bipartisan step forward on the issue that remains most important to voters: health care.

A record-setting 403 lawmakers — 75 percent of Capitol Hill — sent companion letters from the Senate and House to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services expressing strong support for Medicare Advantage, the public-private partnership through which more than a third of Medicare beneficiaries receive coverage today.

Sens. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., and Reps. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., and Mike Kelly, R-Pa., led the letters. The hundreds of co-signers are as ideologically and geographically diverse as the lead authors and were split nearly evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

This showing of congressional unity amid a polarizing election year should not be missed by the media or the public. At a time when health care policy is increasingly partisan, the supermajority of support behind Medicare Advantage offers us a lesson on the future of health care and where lawmakers can find common ground.

At the Better Medicare Alliance, where I serve as president and CEO, we have long said that Medicare Advantage offers a framework on which to build future health care reforms. It is working for consumers who like the quality coverage and care at an affordable cost, and give it a 94 percent satisfaction rating.

Democratic members of Congress like the security of Medicare Advantage’s coverage, accountability for quality care and its leadership in caring for those individuals with chronic conditions. Enrollees are guaranteed the same benefits as those in traditional Medicare and often receive additional ones such as vision, dental, hearing and wellness programs. Ninety-seven percent of plans provide some combination of these benefits and nearly 6 in 10 offer all four. Most recently, Medicare Advantage has offered services that address social risk factors such as meal delivery, transportation to medical appointments or home care.

Likewise, Republicans on Capitol Hill appreciate the choice that Medicare Advantage offers to consumers, seeing this as an alternative to traditional Medicare’s one-size-fits-all coverage. Private plans can modify their offerings to compete based on quality and cost, enabling beneficiaries to choose the plan that works best for them. Virtually all beneficiaries have access to a Medicare Advantage plan and, for the 2020 open enrollment season, the average beneficiary had 28 plans to choose from based on their unique needs.

Lawmakers of both parties appreciate Medicare Advantage’s cost savings for lower- and modest-income beneficiaries — enrollees save an average of $1,276 a year compared to traditional Medicare — and the ability of plans and providers to innovate new models of care and service delivery, all without adding new costs to the government.

This is how Medicare Advantage has sustained its bipartisan support. It was first passed by an overwhelming vote in Congress and made law during the presidency of Bill Clinton (then known as Medicare Plus Choice). The Bush administration was supportive, the Obama administration touted its “better benefits, higher quality care and lower costs,” and Medicare Advantage receives active support from the Trump administration.

The news reports are right about one thing: These are divisive times. So when 403 members of Congress rally around an issue as sensitive as health care for seniors — despite the distractions and political pressures — it means something important. Medicare Advantage is not a Republican or Democratic idea, but an American value that unites us all.

The path to improving health care for every American runs straight through an embrace of the innovation and bipartisanship that make Medicare Advantage what it is today.

Allyson Y. Schwartz is the president and CEO of the Better Medicare Alliance. She represented Pennsylvania in the House from 2005 to 2015.