Guest Opinions

A Medicare proposal that could adversely affect Idaho’s seniors

If proposed Obama administration rules about complex medications go into effect, elderly and disabled Idaho residents, particularly in rural areas, may face waiting lists and difficulty getting much-needed care. It’s a very worrisome situation that our delegation in Congress must continue to speak out about.

Under the guise of the “Medicare Part B Drug Payment Model,” the proposed bureaucratic mandates are the Obama administration’s experiment on seniors that could jeopardize access to therapies that elderly and persons with disabilities need. These medications, given to patients in doctors’ offices and outpatient clinics, are usually injected or infused. Most are used only after doctors and patients have tried simpler drugs and procedures to treat conditions.

The new rules would cut already modest payment rates to physicians and clinics by as much as 75 percent. As a result, many smaller clinics might not even be able to recover their direct-out-of-pocket costs for storing and administrating lifesaving therapies. And, despite the misleading name of “demonstration,” the rules would apply to most Medicare beneficiaries as soon as they go into effect and almost everybody else over the coming years.

We’re particularly concerned about what this could do to people with chronic lung conditions such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis. Idaho residents are far more likely than people elsewhere in the country to die from such diseases. Furthermore, the state’s very low population density — nearly 650 acres for every man, woman and child in the state — means that the loss of even a single clinic or doctor could force residents to travel hours just to see a someone capable of providing a life-sustaining drug. Under the new rules, many clinics might need to resort to waiting lists to decide who gets drugs they need to breathe normally. People with other conditions ranging from arthritis to cancer could face similar struggles in getting the medications they need to remain in good health.

Add to this: the supposed savings government officials predict probably won’t materialize anyway. Because most doctor-office-administered drugs treat chronic conditions, reducing access to them will almost certainly increase the need for expensive emergency room visits and hospital inpatient stays.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, many members of Congress have raised their voices to object. Over 300 members of Congress from both parties have expressed their displeasure with the rules, and our own Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, has shown real leadership getting his Senate colleagues to weigh in on a bipartisan basis against the rules. As the chair of the Congressional Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Caucus, Crapo continues to fight for those living with respiratory conditions.

For Idaho, however, time is running short. Without quick changes to the proposed policies, older and disabled citizens who have paid into the Medicare system their entire lives could lose access to much-needed medications. The policy needs to change. Idaho’s elderly and disabled citizens deserve better. We’re fortunate to have Crapo standing strong.

Don Heikkila is president of the Idaho State Grange. Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange.