Medicare premium hikes may be nixed

WASHINGTON - House leaders have scheduled a vote today on a bill that would eliminate premium increases for Medicare Part B next year.

Older Americans shouldn't have to pay higher Medicare premiums because they are not expected to get a cost-of-living increase from Social Security, said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

With no Social Security COLA, the vast majority of Medicare recipients already are exempt from premium increases for Part B, which provides coverage for doctor's visits. However, a small group of seniors would face increases. The standard premium is projected to go from $96.40 a month this year to $104.20 a month in 2010. Some could face premiums high as $120 a month, according to House Democrats.

The House bill would eliminate the premium increases, using $2.8 billion from a fund established in 2008 to improve Medicare.

Social Security COLAs and Medicare Part B premiums have been tied together for years because most seniors have their Medicare premiums deducted from their Social Security payments.

The Social Security Administration projects no cost-of-living increases for the next two years because the adjustments are pegged to inflation, which has been negative this year, largely because energy prices are below 2008 levels.

Several lawmakers have introduced bills that would provide Social Security increases, regardless of inflation. If they fail, it would mark the first year without an increase since automatic increases were adopted in 1975.

About 42 million seniors and people with disabilities are enrolled in Medicare Part B. With no Social Security COLA, 75 percent of Medicare Part B recipients are automatically exempt from premium increases.

Among those facing premium increases, if Congress does not act:

- Low-income seniors on both Medicare and Medicaid. Medicaid, the state-federal health insurance program for the poor, pays their Medicare premiums, meaning states would bear some of the costs.

- High-income seniors on Medicare Part B - singles making more than $85,000 a year and couples making more than $170,000.

- New enrollees in Medicare Part B would pay the higher premiums, if Congress does not act.

"These hikes would threaten the pocketbooks of new enrollees and retirees, as well as state budgets, which cover premiums for low-income seniors," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Ca., chairman of a House subcommittee on health.

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