Commentary: Protect seniors from Medicare cuts

California is home to 5 million Medicare beneficiaries. Our senior citizens deserve quality healthcare at a fair price. However, a new panel in Washington, D.C., is jeopardizing their care.

The Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) is a 15-person, unelected board with the authority to impose sweeping, arbitrary cuts to Medicare if it determines that costs are growing too quickly. IPAB lacks feasible checks and balances. It is not subject to administrative or judicial oversight.

Each year, if Medicare's growth exceeds a predetermined rate, IPAB has the power to step in and make cost-cutting "recommendations" to Congress. While lawmakers can theoretically adjust the types of cuts proposed, IPAB ultimately determines how much must be cut.

Congress members can only change the specific areas of Medicare hit by IPAB's sharp scissors with a two-thirds supermajority vote or an entirely new cost-cutting proposal. If they fail to do so, the panel's recommendations are automatically implemented as law.

We all know Congress is polarized and often doesn't make deadlines for implementing budgetary measures. This obstacle makes it likely that IPAB recommendations will become law.

Fortunately, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) just signed on to a measure to protect seniors' access to Medicare. The legislation she's cosponsoring with a bipartisan group of Congress members from across the country would repeal IPAB. For the sake of seniors in California and across the country, all representatives must join Sanchez's bipartisan effort to stop IPAB.

It's critical to the health of Medicare beneficiaries to rein in this board. Passing this legislation, the Protecting Seniors' Access to Medicare Act, is vital to preserving Medicare's standard of care.

Physicians who currently treat Medicare patients take a substantial pay cut to do so. Last July, the Congressional Budget Office predicted that Medicare compensation for physicians' services to enrollees will be reduced by 27 percent throughout 2013.

This makes IPAB's likely choices that much worse. The elderly and disabled may need healthcare the most, but their access to treatment will be limited. Medicare patients will end up with fewer choices of physicians, shorter doctor's visits and longer waits between appointments.

Our elderly aren't the only vulnerable population that would be devastated by the IPAB's cuts. Medicare reductions will dramatically affect Lupus patients, who require highly trained specialists to manage their conditions.

Already, about 1 in 4 Americans suffering from Lupus relies on Medicare or another government program to receive treatment. Medicare cuts imposed by IPAB could be a major obstacle for a struggling group of people who critically need medical care.

Most Americans agree that Medicare must be reformed. But changes should be thoughtful and deliberate and made by elected officials who can be held accountable at the ballot box.

IPAB was created to circumvent the people, imposing unpopular choices by mandate without meaningful limits on its authority. This board jeopardizes the health of the very people we should be protecting.

The only solution is for more lawmakers to join Sanchez, voting to protect Medicare enrollees and repeal this bureaucratic and uncountable board.

HOLLAINE HOPKINS is executive director of the Lupus Foundation of Southern California.

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