The AARP Wishes Grandma An Unhealthy New Year

Members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) may be surprised to learn what the AARP’s Washington lobbyists are trying to do to seniors’ Medicare coverage.

The AARP’s 32 million members include millions of Medicare beneficiaries. Yet, the AARP is supporting a plan to drastically restrict Medicare beneficiaries’ choice of doctors.

Beginning January 1, 1998, a new law will rob American seniors of a right enjoyed even by British seniors who live under a system of socialized medicine. This law — which is already a done deal — will bar most seniors from paying their own doctor out-of-pocket for a Medicare-covered service.

Because Medicare’s one-size-fits-all structure cannot meet everyone’s needs, seniors often go outside the program to pay for care themselves. Some pay out-of-pocket to keep medical records (such as psychiatric care) from appearing on a government database. Others do so to obtain state-of-the-art treatment when Medicare will only pay for less effective treatments. Still others do so for routine services once they turn 65 and discover their doctor is no longer accepting new Medicare patients.

Today, any Medicare beneficiary who wants to do any of these things (including the handicapped) must find one of the four percent of doctors who see no Medicare patients at all. Many will have to travel hundreds of miles to find the right specialist. Either that, or they can see a pediatrician. Or they can convince their own doctor to abandon all his Medicare patients for two years — the new penalty designed to keep seniors from seeing the doctor of their choice.

Happy New Year, Grandma.

Some members of Congress, including Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, are trying to head off this disaster before too many seniors get hurt. Curiously, the AARP isn’t interested in helping. In fact, they’re quietly fighting to keep Grandma from having the option of seeing her own doctor outside of Medicare.

The AARP says it opposes giving Grandma this option because it wants to protect Medicare, citing reports that Medicare loses $23 billion a year to fraud. Yet when seniors pay for their own care, there isn’t any Medicare money involved. If anything, allowing seniors to pay out-of-pocket will save money by allowing interested seniors to pick up the tab instead of billing the government. Call it “voluntary means-testing.”

The AARP also says it wants to protect seniors from “higher health care costs.” Evidently, the AARP doesn’t know the difference between costs and spending. They actually have it backwards.

Medicare can limit spending on seniors’ health care. Congress does this all the time by limiting how much Medicare will pay for certain services. However, this still leaves seniors exposed to very high health care costs, such as the loss of hearing that comes from Medicare paying only for a sub-standard hearing aid.

If, after her hip replacement, Grandma wants to see a leading physical therapist who is no longer accepting new Medicare patients, it is because she feels the cost of going to a lesser therapist (i.e. inferior care) is more than the dollar cost of the better therapist. Because this AARP-approved law forbids Grandma to see the better therapist, it actually exposes her to higher health care costs.

An aide to Rep. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, a supporter of the AARP’s position, commented that beneficiaries who object to this restriction should leave Medicare permanently. It makes one wonder whether the AARP and its allies think Medicare exists for them, or for seniors.

There is a reason the AARP is fighting this quietly. Most seniors join AARP for those famous discounts (at hotels, restaurants, etc.) that come with membership. Millions of AARP members doubtless have no idea what their Washington lobbyists are up to. Once Grandma finds out AARP’s new slogan is “Hey Granny: Love Medicare Or Leave It!” she might not be pleased.

The fact is, sometimes Medicare doesn’t work for seniors. When that happens, seniors should have peace of mind knowing they can still get the care they need from their own doctor, just their British cousins do. America’s senior citizens should not be forced to see a pediatrician or travel hundreds of miles to find that one-in-25 doctor who will take them outside of Medicare.

Earlier this week, another seniors’ group went to court to block the law that will give American seniors fewer medical options than British grannies. Let’s hope they or someone else succeed before the AARP and its allies force Grandma to go to England to get the care she needs.