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New Medicare Benefits: More than Prescription Drugs

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New Medicare Benefits: More than Prescription Drugs
January 14, 2005

For almost two years now, a majority of discussion about Medicare has focused on one issue in particular: prescription drugs. From the moment President Bush first announced a plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare in his 2003 State of the Union address, we've had debates over how much it will cost, over how to safely re-import drugs sold to Canadian pharmacies, and over just how effective the prescription drug benefit will be once it is fully implemented over the next several years. What's been missing from the discussion, however, is an honest account of all the Medicare Modernization Act has to offer.

This Medicare bill was signed into law by President Bush on December 8, 2003. Above all else, its aim was to introduce the idea of prevention into the system. From its inception, Medicare had focused on treating medical problems after-the-fact. Because many common illnesses and conditions are far easier and far less expensive to treat when caught early on, patients and taxpayers alike benefit from preventative services.

Medicare's newest preventative service was launched on January 1st of this year. On this day, Medicare began offering "Welcome to Medicare" exams for new Medicare beneficiaries. This comprehensive exam will include a thorough review of a patient's health, and it also will incorporate extensive education and counseling about preventative services that are available. This initial exam is available within the first six months of enrollment in Medicare Part B.

Another new, preventative service Medicare provides is a cardiovascular screening. Patients work with their doctors to determine their eligibility. The screenings include tests for cholesterol, lipid, and triglyceride levels because these tests are one way of showing if a person is at high risk for heart disease or stroke.

Additionally, Medicare now provides diabetes screening. Again, patients will work with doctors to determine eligibility, but the tests are designed to show if a person's body produces enough insulin and determines the body's response to insulin. There is no charge for either the cardiovascular or diabetes screenings.

The crown jewel of the new Medicare law - in my opinion - is the creation of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). To have an HSA, a person must be under the age of 65 and covered by a high-deductible health insurance policy: one with annual out-of-pocket costs of at least $1,000 for an individual or $2,000 for a family. Annual contributions to an HSA can be up to $2,600 for individual policies and $5,150 for family policies. Contributions can be made by anyone: an individual, an employer, or a family member. And those between the ages of 55 and 64 will be able to make additional "catch-up" contributions. Withdrawals from HSAs can be used for medical expenses not covered by your insurance policy, including prescription drug costs, long-term care insurance, Medicare expenses, and even dental and orthodontic care.

Unfortunately, the media has been quick to say that big employers have been slow to adopt HSAs. But in reality, HSAs have caught-on rather well since their launch a year ago. Small businesses - specifically those who previously offered no health insurance for employees - and individuals without previous health coverage have bought into Health Savings Accounts at a rapid pace.

Clearly, the year-old Medicare law involves more than just prescription drugs. It's about prevention and finding innovative ways to cover lifetime health care costs. More and more Americans are discovering this, no matter what their age. I hope you will too. For more information, visit or call toll-free, 1-800-MEDICARE.

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