National health care reform will help seniors on Medicare as well as millions of uninsured Americans, Maryland U.S. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin told a receptive crowd of more than 100 people at the Vantage House retirement community in Columbia.
"We're sort of following Howard County on the national level," Cardin said at the start of his visit Wednesday, referring to the county's health access plan for the uninsured. But although he, like many in the audience, feel the law passed by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama is lacking in some respects, "I'm a supporter. I think it was incredibly important for us to move forward on health care."
The reason, he said, is a simple concept that is already true elsewhere.
"The United States at long last is joining every other industrialized nation in the world who says health care is a right, not a privilege." He reinforced that message by describing how a 12-year-old Prince George's County boy died of an infection in 2007 from an tooth abscess after his mother could not find dental services she could afford.
"That would have been an $80 visit to a dentist," Cardin said, "but it became a $250,000 operation, and he lost his life."
On health care for seniors, Cardin told the group there would be no reduction in basic Medicare benefits under the new law, though the Medicare Advantage plans would change. The new law is already beginning to close the "doughnut hole" in prescription drug coverage that forces seniors to resume paying the full cost of prescriptions after reaching a threshold annual amount.
Starting in January, he said, annual physicals without co-pays or deductibles would be available for seniors as part of an attempt to use preventive care to lower costs. There will also be access to long-term care insurance, though he said he's not satisfied with that provision because it would remain very expensive.
Overall, the new law is expected to cut enough costs to extend the life of Medicare for nine to 12 years, he said. Payments would be cut to doctors under Medicare Advantage plans, he said, because they are subsidizing the cost of treatment for uninsured people. Since the new law requires coverage by 2014, those higher payments would not be needed.
"It's wrong for taxpayers of this country to subsidize private insurance companies," he said.
But some in the audience had problems with parts of the law.
"This bill will give half a trillion dollars to private health insurance companies," said Dr. Eric Naumburg, a pediatrician with Physicians for National Health Care. Naumburg said it would also leave 23 million people without health insurance. His group favors a single-payer system, he said.
"I am in complete agreement," Cardin said, vowing to work to strengthen the law.
Celia Weinberger, 93, wanted to know, "Why hasn't Congress or somebody taken on the pharmaceutical companies?"
Cardin said, "It's absolutely wrong that Americans pay more than our Canadian and European friends. We're overpaying. The new law does shave $80 billion from pharmaceutical profits, but it's not enough," he said. "We've been way too soft fighting for Americans."
Joking to the friendly crowd that he's happy not to be on this year's election ballot, Cardin put in subtle plugs for his Senate colleague Barbara A. Mikulski, who is on the ballot, along with fellow Democrats Reps. John Sarbanes and Elijah E. Cummings, who represent parts of Howard County.
Cardin said audiences have calmed considerably since August 2009, when congressional town hall meetings on health care often turned into shouting matches.
"No one even attempted to throw anything at me," he said jokingly.