Mr. President, I wish to express my enthusiastic support for the amendment Senators SCHUMER and SANTORUM offered to increase funding for the Medicare+Choice Program in 2004 and 2005. This amendment addresses a critically important issue that has far-reaching implications affecting the health care benefits of millions of low-income and minority seniors. I am pleased to be a cosponsor of this amendment to ensure that this urgently needed funding increase is included in the Medicare bill.
I believe we must take bold action to address the fact that Congress has not provided adequate funding for the health care of Medicare beneficiaries who select HMOs and other private sector health plans. In many parts of Massachusetts, and in other parts of the country, funding for Medicare+Choice plans has been limited to annual increases of only 2 percent in most years since 1998. These increase are inadequate at a time when health care costs are rising by 8 to 10 percent annually. This level of inadequate funding is unfair to the 170,000 Medicare beneficiaries in Massachusetts who have selected private health plan options. I am a strong supporter of the wonderful health plans we have in MassachusettsHarvard, Tufts, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and Fallon Community Health Plan. We must step up to the plate to help these plansnonprofit plans in my Statein their time of need.
The Schumer-Santorum-Kerry amendment takes important steps to address this problem. By providing funding now to stabilize existing private health plan options for Medicare beneficiaries, we can help ensure that the proposed Medicare Advantage Program will be successful in the future. Our amendment lays the groundwork for successful long-term efforts to provide beneficiaries with high-quality health care choices.
As the Senate continues to debate changes in Medicare, it is important for us to remember that, for more than 4.5 million Medicare beneficiaries across America, Medicare+Choice is an essential program that provides high-quality, comprehensive, affordable coverage that is not always available, or affordable under the Medicare fee-for-service program. These seniors and disabled Americans have voluntarily chosen to receive their health coverage through Medicare HMOs and other private sector plans because they recognize the value they offer.
Seniors in Massachusetts have come to rely on the high-quality health care they receive through their Medicare+Choice plans. Prescription drugs coverage, disease management services, physician exams, vision benefits, and hearing aids are examples of the additional benefits that are routinely offered by their Medicare+Choice plans.
These additional benefits are valued by all seniors, but they are particularly important to low-income seniors who cannot afford other Medicare supplementary plans that might provide them such benefits but at a greater cost.
As the Medicare debate moves forward, it is important for Congress to remember that Medicare+Choice serves as a vital safety net for many of our Nation's most vulnerable seniors. For millions of beneficiaries who cannot afford to purchase a Medigap policy, Medicare+Choice is their only hope for obtaining comprehensive health coverage.
The Schumer-Santorum-Kerry amendment focuses on protecting this important option for seniors who have nowhere else to turn for the quality health coverage they need. I urge my colleagues to support the additional funding that is urgently needed to strengthen the Medicare+Choice Program for seniors. This should be among our highest priorities in this year's Medicare debate.