By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Millions of seniors in popular private insurance plans offered through Medicare will be getting a reprieve from some of the most controversial cuts in President Barack Obama's health care law.
In a policy shift critics see as political, the Health and Human Services department has decided to award quality bonuses to hundreds of Medicare Advantage plans rated merely average.
The $6.7 billion infusion could head off service cuts that would have been a headache for Obama and Democrats in next year's elections for the White House and Congress. More than half the roughly 11 million Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans rated average.
The insurance industry says the bonuses will turn what would have averaged out as a net loss for the plans in 2012 into a slight increase.
In a recent letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, two prominent GOP lawmakers questioned what they termed the administration's "newfound support" for Medicare Advantage.
The shift "may represent a thinly veiled use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes," wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan. Camp chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Medicare. Hatch is his counterpart as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Seniors are among the deepest skeptics of the new health care law. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 62% disapprove of Obama's handling of health care, as contrasted with 52% approval among Americans overall. The poll also found that seniors are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats on health.
The administration says the reason for the bonuses is quality improvement, not politics, and the program will be evaluated as it goes along.
"We are looking at whether an alternative payment incentive structure would lead to broader quality improvements across all Medicare Advantage plans, by giving incentives for a broader range of plans to improve," said Medicare spokesman Brian Cook.