Everyone seems to want to know these days: How will the Affordable Care Act affect me? Retirees and seniors are no exception.
While the 2010 health care law was generally designed to provide health insurance for many of the 48 million Americans who currently don't have it, the legislation tries to make other improvements to the health care system, including Medicare. Still, many older Americans remain concerned about the law often called Obamacare, particularly after some opponents of the legislation have claimed it would actually strip seniors' medical benefits.
"We had a lot of seniors who were very worried — I mean really worried — because of all of the crazy things that have been said on the television or wherever else they've heard them," said Criss Tomlin, the Douglas County coordinator for Senior Health Insurance Counseling for Kansas, or SHICK. "We've spent a lot of time reassuring people that what the Affordable Care Act did for Medicare was a good thing."
What it did was require that Medicare begin covering several additional preventive services, such as annual wellness visits, immunizations, diet counseling, and screenings for cancer, cholesterol and diabetes. It started closing the Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage gap, referred to as "the doughnut hole," which had many seniors paying high out-of-pocket costs for their medications (the gap is now scheduled to be closed by 2020). It also added resources to help catch people who fraudulently bill Medicare.
"The Affordable Care Act has very little to do with Medicare recipients, since senior citizens already have publicly financed health care," noted Molly Wood, a Lawrence attorney who specializes in elder law.
Uninsured Kansans under the Medicare eligibility age of 65, meanwhile, can purchase private coverage on the new health insurance marketplace at HealthCare.gov, though the website has thus far been plagued by technical problems. People who make between 100 and 400 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for tax rebates to offset the cost of the premiums.
The law also includes some protective measures for older Americans. The Elder Justice Act, which was part of Obamacare, aims to combat elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation. While Congress has yet to provide funding for the measure, supporters say it was an important first step.
"I'm personally pleased it was incorporated into law, funding or no funding," said Mitzi McFatrich, executive director of Lawrence-based Kansas Advocates for Better Care. "That gives us options for advocacy we didn't have previously."
Still, much of the Affordable Care Act outreach and education directed at seniors has focused on clearing up misconceptions they've had about the law.
"If I'm talking to a group of senior citizens, one of the first things I say is, 'If you're on Medicare, take a deep breath, relax, nothing is changing,'" said Sheldon Weisgrau, who travels the state informing Kansans about Obamacare as director of the Health Reform Resource Project. "'The changes that are happening in Medicare are largely going to benefit you. They're going to reduce your out-of-pocket costs. They're going to increase your benefits. You're going to wake up on Jan. 1 and nothing will have changed.' I sometimes have people getting up and leaving right then because that's what they wanted to hear."