AARP Orlando@50+ Conference

By:  Kathleen Sebelius
Date: Oct. 1, 2010
Location: Orlando, FL

Thank you, Phil, for that nice introduction. And good morning to all of you. It's great to be here with you today.

As most of you know, AARP celebrated its own 50th birthday a couple years ago. It's remained relevant through ten presidents, the end of the Cold War, and an information revolution because older Americans know they can trust you. AARP has become the gold standard in cutting through spin and complexity to give people the accurate information they need to make the best choices for their families, whether it's retirement planning or understanding their assisted living options.

Americans come to AARP to get the facts. And I'm glad to be speaking with you this morning because that's exactly what they need when it comes to the new health reform law the President signed in March.

AARP has a long history of leadership on health care. Sixty years ago, millions of retired Americans had no health insurance. To get the care they needed, they often had to sell their homes, drain their savings, or rely on charity.

Back then, insurance companies had already figured out that they could make bigger profits by carving out older Americans who are more likely to have expensive chronic conditions or end up in the hospital for major operations.

That's what drove Dr. Ethel Andrus to band together with some of her former colleagues in 1947 to form the National Retired Teachers Association in order to bargain for affordable health insurance. Eleven years later, the group began allowing retirees from all professions to join and changed their name. They called themselves the American Association of Retired Persons.

Since then, AARP has led the fight to get older Americans better access to health care, from creating Medicare in 1965 to adding benefits and filling gaps in coverage in the following decades.

Often, special interests tried to block these changes. They'd claim we were ushering in socialism, that seniors would all lose their doctors, that we were on the verge of widespread rationing of care. Sound familiar?

But every time, AARP and its allies were always there to fight fear with facts.

That's what we need today as we write the latest chapter in this story with the new health reform law you helped pass this March. The Affordable Care Act will make sure Medicare works for beneficiaries by extending the life of the trust fund, securing guaranteed benefits, adding new preventive measures, and slashing waste and fraud.

At the same time, the new law also creates important new insurance options and consumer protections for retired Americans who are still counting down to their 65th birthdays.

But with so much else on Americans' minds and a 24-hour news cycle that gets louder every day, it's been hard for these facts to break through. That's what I've heard from the people I've talked with across the country in more than 25 states. They like the benefits in the new law that they've heard about, but they're also confused.

We need to get people the information they need. And that starts with explaining what won't change.

If you have Medicare like my father who served in Congress and helped write the law and is now enjoying his benefits very much, you will keep every single guaranteed Medicare benefit that you have today.

But here's what will change.

First, you're going to get some relief from high prescription drug costs. Last week, I met Helen Gunter from Delaware. To treat her breast cancer, she takes an expensive brand name medication that has forced her into the prescription drug donut hole. As part of the Affordable Care Act, Helen and more than a million other seniors who have hit the donut hole have already received $250 checks this year to help them afford their medications.

And starting in January, seniors like Helen will get 50 percent off all brand-name prescription drugs when they hit the donut hole. If you take Lipitor, we estimate you'll save about $45 a month. If you take Advair, one of the most popular drugs for asthma, you'll save an average of $100 a month. Altogether, we estimate that the average beneficiary who enters the donut hole will save about $500 next year.

And every year, those savings will go up until 2020 when we close the donut hole.

Second, beginning in January, it will be easier to get the preventive screenings, treatments, visits, and vaccinations that can help you stay healthy. When it comes to diseases like cancer, the difference between life and death can be how soon you catch it. Yet we know that too many Americans go without the mammograms and colon cancer screenings that can catch these problems early -- often because even if you have Medicare, the co-pay alone can still be over $100. So we're eliminating these co-pays, so no senior has to skip a recommended cancer screening because they can't pay.

Our goal is to prevent illnesses before they happen. Here's another example: today Medicare will only pay for smoking cessation counseling if you've already been diagnosed with a tobacco-related disease or symptoms. In other words, we wait until people get sick to try to help them stay healthy. That doesn't make sense. So starting January 1st, any beneficiary will be able to get tobacco cessation counseling, so people can stop smoking before their health starts to suffer.

Third, we're putting Medicare on sounder financial footing. Every year, the independent actuaries at Medicare come out with a report about its long-term outlook. As you can imagine, with the way health care costs have been rising, these reports haven't had a lot of good news recently.

But this year, the actuaries said that the life of the Medicare trust fund had actually been extended by 12 years thanks to the new health reform law. That doesn't mean we can relax and forget about costs. But it does mean that for the first time in a long time, we're heading in the right direction.

These are facts about the new law that all seniors need to hear. But the Affordable Care Act also contains some important new protections for retired Americans who haven't qualified for Medicare yet.

This is important because people in my age group are some of the most vulnerable in our health insurance system. In some states today, a 64-year-old can pay 11 times as much as a 24-year-old for the exact same health insurance policy. And older Americans are three times as likely to be denied coverage because of a preexisting medical condition as middle-aged people.

So if you're one of those people who's counting down the days until you get Medicare, we're giving you some immediate relief. In every state across the country, the new law has created what's called a Preexisting Condition Insurance Plan where people who are eligible can go get insurance if they've been shut out of the market.

Last week, I met a woman named Gail from New Hampshire who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. She hadn't been able to get health coverage, and once she got the cancer diagnosis, she knew no insurance company would take her. But now, she's been able to join New Hampshire's new plan and she's getting the treatments she needs.

The law has also created a new Early Retiree Reinsurance Program. A lot of retired Americans rely on coverage from their former employers, but in recent years, many of them have seen this coverage cut because of rising costs, often leaving them with nowhere to turn. This program allows employers to get help maintaining this coverage. And we've already signed up nearly 2,000 businesses, unions, and state and local governments across the country.

This is what's in the new law: common sense reforms that help you get the care you need.

And what's happening around the country is this reality is starting to collide with some of the outrageous claims people have been making. Medicare Advantage is a perfect example.

Over the last year and a half, one of the attacks we heard over and over again was that the new law is going to destroy Medicare Advantage. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, watch out.

Well, the doom and gloom crowd was wrong.

Last week, our department announced the Medicare Advantage plans for 2011. Here's what we learned: first, premiums will actually go down by one percent on average next year. Second, there will be more meaningful choices. And third, this is true even though there will be new benefits like the ones I mentioned earlier.

So the prediction was: worse benefits, fewer choices, skyrocketing premiums. And the result was: better benefits, better choices, and premiums actually going down.

The new law speaks for itself. But we need to give it a megaphone because the opponents of reform have made it clear that they're not going to let the facts get in the way of their attacks. They're operating under the old theory that if you say something enough times, it becomes true.

We need to get the truth out there. And we need your help.

That's especially true for some parts of the law that Americans might not know much about.

For example, one part of this law that's not well-known is that it's one of the toughest anti-health care fraud bills in American history.

Under President Obama, we've gotten serious about protecting taxpayer dollars and the Medicare trust fund. In the last year and a half, we've more than tripled the number of anti-fraud strike forces across the country from two to seven -- with plans to expand even more.

The Affordable Care Act adds an additional $350 million in funding so we can put even more boots on the ground. And it also creates new tools to prevent fraud and establishes tougher sentences for criminals who get caught.

But our best weapon against fraud isn't new technology or more agents. It's seniors themselves.

That's why today we're announcing a $9 million grant to strengthen the Senior Medicare Patrol, a grassroots group of senior volunteers across the country who educate their peers to help them avoid being cheated. And it's why we've launched a new fraud prevention media campaign to reach seniors with information about how to protect themselves.

We're already seeing results. Last year, we returned $2.5 billion to the Medicare trust fund -- up nearly 30 percent from the year before. And criminals who plan to steal from Medicare are facing a new reality: it's a lot harder to do, you're more likely to be caught, and when we do catch you, you'll pay a bigger price.

Another worry I hear from lots of older Americans is about access to care. Even if they have insurance, they still want to be sure that they'll have access to a doctor when they need one.

We had these concerns in mind when we made sure the new health reform law contained a historic investment in our health care workforce. When added to previous investments we made, it will help us train 16,000 new health care providers over the next five years.

We're focusing these resources on underserved areas, like rural communities, and underserved specialties, like geriatrics. Just yesterday for example, we announced new grants to train geriatric specialists who are experts in areas like chronic disease management and palliative care.

Finally, Americans need to know that the new law gives older Americans more control over how they live out their golden years.

Given a choice, most of us prefer to live in our own homes or with family for as long as possible. But often, people get pushed into a nursing home even though it costs more and is not what they wanted.

This law helps put seniors back in control. First, we're extending the Money Follows the Person program in Medicaid with more than $2 billion in new funding. This program lets you take the funding you would have used for an institution and use it to receive care in your own community.

Second, we're creating a new self-funded, voluntary cash benefit program for residential services and supports. Under this new program, people will pay an affordable monthly premium. In return, they'll get the peace of mind that comes with knowing they'll have choice and control if they need help and support to age in place.

And the law also has better options for the rest of your family. Thanks to new reforms that began to take effect last month, young adults will be able to stay on their parents' insurance up to age 26 and new plans will no longer be able to deny coverage to children with pre-existing medical conditions. There are also tough new rules for insurance companies like a ban on lifetime benefit limits that often meant your insurance disappeared when you needed it most.

And starting in 2014, there will be a new insurance market for small business owners and Americans who don't get insurance through their jobs where they'll be able to get affordable coverage no matter how old they are or what their medical history is.

These are the facts. This is what's in the new law. But most Americans still haven't heard about these changes because it's easier to talk about a made-up sound bite like death panels than the hard work of stamping out Medicare fraud.

That makes our job more challenging. But we can't afford excuses. Not when we're hearing some folks in Washington say they want to repeal the new law.

In other words, they want to add new costs for prescription drugs in Medicare, add new fees for mammograms and checkups, shut retirees with preexisting conditions out of the health insurance market, take anti-fraud agents off the street, give insurers free reign to raise your premiums, force some Americans out of their homes, and subtract twelve years from the life of the Medicare trust fund.

That's what they're proposing. So unless we want to move backwards, we need to do what AARP has always done best: getting out the facts.

That's why we've launched an educational campaign to reach seniors across the country from Medicare open enrollment TV ads with Andy Griffith to an educational brochure we mailed to every Medicare recipient to regional fraud summits Attorney General Holder and I are hosting across the country to our 1-800-MEDICARE hotline which has been taking up to 30,000 calls a day.

You can help. You can reach out to your neighbors, your family members, your communities to help answer their questions and debunk myths.

It's one thing for seniors to hear about the new law from me. But it really hits home when they see how it affects their own life -- when they get a check in the mail to help with their prescription drugs, or their sister gets insurance through a new preexisting condition insurance plan, or their friend's Medicare Advantage premium goes down.

This law is not perfect. I've been in government long enough to know that no law ever is. But remember: the Medicare we know and love today is not the Medicare that first passed in 1965. Medicare originally had only basic coverage for doctor's visits. There was no coverage for physical therapy, hospice care, or prescription drugs.

The reason Medicare provides the security it does today is that we've acted time and time again over the years to strengthen it and put it on a more solid footing for the future. That's what we're doing again with this new law. If we want to keep moving forward, we need to get out the fact about this law. And there's no one that can do that better than AARP.

Thank you.

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