The Medicare Trustees announced this week that the program will remain solvent until 2024 – the same projection as last year. While this finding is reassuring, it doesn’t mean we can afford to be complacent. Millions of American women – mothers, grandmothers, and aunts – rely on this program every day for affordable health care coverage. In fact, more than half of the roughly 49 million Medicare beneficiaries are women. And the numbers continue to grow as our nation ages.
For these women, Medicare provides access to essential preventive care, physician and hospital services, prescription drugs, and home health care. Often this is care women could not otherwise afford; nursing home care alone can cost roughly $75,000 per year.
Medicare also offers guaranteed protection. There is no gender rating – women pay the same Medicare premium as men; there is no exclusion for pre-existing conditions – an eligible woman diagnosed with breast cancer will not be turned away from the program; Medicare coverage is never rescinded – women can be confident that the coverage will be there when they need it; and there are no annual limits that restrict coverage when a woman needs it most.
Medicare’s promise of affordable coverage has become one of the most important pillars of retirement security. Women age 65 and older have average incomes of only around $22,000 – an amount easily wiped out by one serious illness. Without Medicare, millions of older women would be left to shoulder unmanageable health care costs, forego the critical health care services they need, or be forced to rely on their children for assistance.
There is no question that refinements that reduce health spending and make Medicare more sustainable for the long-term are necessary. There are also improvements in the program – like a sorely needed cap on total out of pocket expenses – that need to be made. But any refinements must be done thoughtfully and carefully. Changes that simply push more costs onto Medicare beneficiaries or cut provider payments in ways that deter physicians from accepting Medicare patients are short-sighted.
The Trustees report indicates there is some time to make the right changes – changes that strengthen the program for current and future generations of women and protect Medicare’s promise of affordable, quality health care. We owe it to these women to get it right.