A decline in the Medicare Part B deductible is a poor long-term strategy

Spend now, worry later!

Through 2005 the Medicare Part B deductible was set by statute. Thereafter it reflects the per capita cost for Medicare beneficiaries. In 1967 the Part B deductible was $50.00. Today after decreasing for 2012 it is only $ 140.00.  

However, if the deductible had been allowed to increase at the rate of general inflation (not even medical inflation) it would be $338.00.         

As a result of the Medicare Modernization Act, the Part B deductible was increased to $110 in 2005 and is indexed thereafter by the annual percentage increase in the Part B actuarial rate for aged beneficiaries.  In 2012, the Part B deductible will be $140, a decrease of $22 from 2011.  (The actuarial rate is set by law at one-half of the total estimated per-enrollee cost of Part B benefits and administrative expenses, adjusted as necessary to maintain an adequate contingency reserve.)

This seems to mean that the per-enrollee cost of Part B is expected to decrease by 13.5%, is that really a likely occurrence?   Did the contingency reserve used in calculating the Part B deductible consider the likely reversal of cuts to physician payments as was apparently the case with the Part B premium?  Regardless, a deductible that should by simple math be $338, should not be decreased under any circumstances, that is simply poor long-term planning.   

Medicare Part B covers a portion of the cost of physicians’ services, outpatient hospital services, certain home health services, durable medical equipment, and other items. By law, the standard premium is set to cover one-fourth of the average cost of Part B services incurred by beneficiaries aged 65 and over, plus a contingency margin. The contingency margin is an amount to ensure that Part B has sufficient assets and income to (i) cover Part B expenditures during the year, (ii) cover incurred-but-unpaid claims costs at the end of the year, (iii) provide for possible variation between actual and projected costs, and (iv) amortize any surplus assets.  Most of the remaining Part B costs are financed by Federal general revenues.  (In 2012, about $2.9 billion in Part B expenditures will be financed by the fees on manufacturers and importers of brand-name prescription drugs under the Affordable Care Act.) 

The largest factor affecting the contingency margin for 2012 is the current law formula for physician fees, which will result in a payment reduction of about 29 percent in 2012.  For each year from 2003 through 2011, Congress has acted to prevent smaller physician fee reductions from occurring. The 2012 reduction is almost certain to be overridden by legislation enacted after Part B financing has been set for 2012. In recognition of the strong possibility of increases in Part B expenditures that would result from similar legislation to override the decrease in physician fees in 2012, it is appropriate to maintain a significantly larger Part B contingency reserve than would otherwise be necessary.  The asset level projected for the end of 2012 is adequate to accommodate this contingency.  

In summary, benefits have increased, the deductible is lower, the premium increase is extremely modest, nothing related to the Affordable Care Act has been implemented that would measurably lower Medicare costs or future trends, the planned cut in physician payments will not happen and all is right with the world.  In many ways CMS has little discretion in administering Medicare because most provisions are set by law, but that is the point.   Setting something as massive as Medicare on automatic pilot is not the best way to administer such a program.  It replaces prudent budget decisions with political decisions.


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