MEDICARE MESS: Outgoing Democratic state Sen. Peter Galbraith (right) says Gov. Peter Shumlin’s handling of Medicare is causing anxiety among seniors.
By Bruce Parker | Vermont Watchdog
After falling short of the 50 percent threshold necessary to win re-election, Gov. Peter Shumlin must now be appointed by the Legislature in January to keep his job. According to one senator, the governor should have known better than to mess with Medicare ahead of the election.
“Senior citizens worry about changes to their standard of living. The easiest thing in the world would have been to say don’t worry. But instead we didn’t, and frankly I think that’s the reason the governor nearly lost,” state Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, told Vermont Watchdog.
“If he’d had an opponent, and if the Republican Party had done any research, he would have lost. People were understandably concerned and we ought to have allayed their concerns.”
Shumlin’s trouble with seniors began in late September when the governor led a team of state health care officials to Washington, D.C., to investigate the possibility of getting waivers to set reimbursement rates to health care providers.
While the meeting with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reportedly failed to produce any tangible result, the mere thought of Vermont taking over any aspect of Medicare was enough to spark controversy.
During the campaign, Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Dan Feliciano said the meeting revealed the governor’s intent to bring Medicare under the auspices of Green Mountain Care, and subsequent claims were made by Republican House and Senate candidates — most notably Bob Frenier and Valerie Mullin. Democrats responded by saying Medicare takeover claims were mere scare tactics.
But Galbraith said there is truth to the assertion that single-payer advocates have designs for controlling aspects of Medicare. The outgoing senator said his single-payer financing plan from the 2014 legislative session, S.252, had exemptions for Medicare recipients stripped out unnecessarily, giving seniors reason to be suspicious.
“When I prepared that, I exempted federal employees, the military and Medicare recipients for the simple reason that they already had publicly financed health care. I also knew none of these people would want to give up their health care. I did allow them to opt in. You could come in and pay all the taxes, though it seemed unlikely that anybody would. This was opposed by the administration, by Mike Fisher and by Claire Ayer, and so it didn’t happen,” he said.
The following exemption, which was taken out of the parts of S.252 that became law, allowed seniors to choose not to participate in Green Mountain Care.
Individuals who are 65 years of age or older shall be included in Green Mountain Care and shall contribute to its financing, except that an individual who is enrolled in Medicare Parts B and D, who is enrolled in Medicare Parts C and D, or who has supplemental insurance that provides substantially the same benefits as Medicare Parts B and D may choose not to participate in Green Mountain Care and to be exempt from the tax on nonwage income pursuant to 32 V.S.A. § 5988, if applicable. (Source)
Galbraith said it made no sense for lawmakers to touch Medicare, as it would create anxiety for seniors satisfied with the federal program. Exactly what the Shumlin administration intends for Medicare has become increasingly muddy since his meeting with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Passed in 2011, Act 48 originally included language that said “Green Mountain Care shall assume responsibility for the benefits and services paid for by … Medicare.” However, Act 144 of 2014 removed language requiring the administration to seek permission from feds to administrate aspects of Medicare, whether that might involve setting reimbursement rates, managing claims or creating other bureaucratic controls.
Whatever Vermont’s single-payer law now requires with regard to Medicare, the Shumlin administration’s meeting with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid in September stoked suspicions that implementation of single-payer health care necessitates some sort of state control. Divining what Shumlin intends for Medicare could be as difficult, as the governor has continuously refused to provide transparency regarding his single-payer plan.
However, in a November 2013 meeting with Physicians for a National Health Program, Shumlin told PNHP founder David Himmelstein he would seek waivers to get everybody in the single-payer health care pool, including Medicare recipients. “I’m going to try to get the waivers to get everybody in the pool — everybody. I want everybody in the pool,” Shumlin said at the meeting.
Getting accurate information from Vermont health care officials could become even more challenging going forward, however, as a video this week shows Vermont’s highly-paid single-payer consultant, Jonathan Gruber, stating misinformation is necessary to help advance Obamacare.
Robin Lunge, Shumlin’s director of health care reform, told the Burlington Free Press in late October the administration has “no intent to run Medicare.” She explained that the administration’s meeting with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services pertained to the possibility of processing claims, which she said was unlikely to happen since the processing is handled regionally across multiple states.
Darcie Johnston, founder of Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, who was responsible for mailers addressing Medicare during the campaign, told Vermont Watchdog she felt vindicated by the remarks of Lunge and Galbraith.
“Since Vermonters for Health Care Freedom was formed, we have watched this issue develop, and I’ve known that it is a very likely reality that Medicare would be included — based on what Act 48 said and the work of the Shumlin administration in developing a financing plan,” she said.
“Robin publicly talked about going down and working on getting the waiver that would include it. Once that became public, it gave us the opportunity to expose it. And once it was exposed, it was very effective at waking up seniors to what might happen if Shumlin’s single-payer plan went through.”
Johnston said seniors are worried that not only are they not going to be able to keep their Medicaid benefits as they’ve known them, but in addition they may be taxed when they feel they’ve already paid for Medicare and shouldn’t be.
Galbraith said the whole Medicare issue has been mishandled by Shumlin and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
“I feel very strongly that when you’re a legislator, and there are things you can do to ease the anxiety of your constituents, you ought to do it,” he said.
“There are a lot of seniors in this state, and Medicare is really important to them. If you’re a retired person, you can’t just go back to work. So the benefit you have is really important to you. And since I knew we couldn’t take it over, it just made no sense not to put anxiety at rest. Same with federal employees and federal retirees. We know we can’t take that over. So why not tell them?”
Contact Bruce Parker at firstname.lastname@example.org