Latest Medicare changes affect senior dollars

Washington Watch

A new law signed by President Obama will help shield some 17 million Americans from steep premium hikes. But many will continue to see changes in the amounts they pay for Medicare next year.

About 30 percent of Medicare beneficiaries were facing a 52 percent increase in their Medicare Part B medical insurance premiums and deductible in 2016. But Congress and the Obama Administration worked out an agreement so beneficiaries will pay about $119 per month instead of $159.30 for Part B. The remaining 70 percent of Medicare beneficiaries will continue to pay the same premium in 2016 as they did in 2015 – $104.90. The agreement was a part of the recently approved budget agreement that Congress passed and President Obama signed.

However, beneficiaries will also have to pay an extra $3 per month to help pay down a loan the government gave to Medicare to offset lost revenue. In addition, all Part B beneficiaries will see their annual deductible increase by 15 percent, or $19 dollars to about $166 in 2016, the first such increase since 2013.

The Part B monthly premium is a well-established Medicare yardstick paid by most of the program’s 55 million beneficiaries, who usually have the money deducted from their Social Security checks.

New beneficiaries will pay a larger amount, and upper-income retirees are looking at considerably higher charges, depending on their circumstances. Most people will continue to pay the $104.90 because a federal law protects Social Security recipients from higher Medicare premiums. Since there won’t be a Social Security cost-of-living increase next year, their premiums will be unchanged.

The nearly 3 million new beneficiaries will pay $121.80 a month – about $38 a month less than was estimated before the budget deal. Wealthier retirees will pay more, ranging from $170.50 a month for individuals making more than $85,000 a year, to $389.80 for those making more than $214,000.

Credit for keeping the huge increase from going into effect goes, in part, to the president’s health care law, which has been gradually closing a coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, easing pressure on many retirees. Another factor has been the historically low growth in the nation’s health care spending, which has meant stability for Medicare beneficiaries. Privately-insured working families have not had the same experience during the Obama years because employers have continued to keep passing on a bigger share of health care costs to their workers.

Medicare’s Part B premium is set by law to cover 25 percent of the cost of outpatient care, with the government picking up the rest. Higher income beneficiaries pay more, since their premiums are set to cover a bigger percentage of costs. Hospital and nursing home care under Medicare is separately financed by a payroll tax equally divided between workers and employers.

Also contributing to this story: Associated Press, Kaiser Health News, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal.