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A Bogus Mass Mailing about Medicare That Just Won't Die

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'November 6, 2012 will be the most important date that will affect the rest of your life,' goes a recent viral email circulating the country. 'The Choice Is Yours' email, linked to an employee at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Alabama*, is an example of scare mongering at its worst:

'For those of you who are on Medicare, read the following. It's short, but important and you probably haven't heard about it in the Mainstream News: 'The per person Medicare Insurance Premium will increase from the present Monthly Fee of $96.40, rising to: $104.20 in 2012, $120.20 in 2013 And $247.00 in 2014. These are Provisions incorporated in the Obamacare Legislation, purposely delayed so as not to confuse the 2012 Re-Election Campaign. Send this to all Seniors that you know, so they will know who's throwing them under the bus.'

Humphrey Taylor, the health care and political pollster, received this email from a friend last week. He was skeptical and wanted to know what I thought. It turns out I knew a great deal and had seen a similar version a few months ago.

In an online post for the Columbia Journalism Review, I reported that other emails that have been passed around like this one seemed like Republican campaign ads and might have been for all I know. Patricia Barry, senior editor of the AARP Bulletin, found that messages like these had been circulating since before the 2010 mid-term elections and have no basis in fact.

A similar scary email was circulating in July when a Midwestern businessman sent one to me and when the Wall Street Journal reported that readers had contacted the paper wanting to know if the numbers splashed around in the email were true. It's all too typical that misinformation about Medicare continues to circulate even when journalists do try to set the record straight.

Since Medicare's annual open enrollment period just began and ends December 7, it's a good time to review exactly what's happening with Medicare premiums. The email message got one thing right:'  the mainstream media have not explained much to seniors about what's happening to Medicare premiums, and without accurate information, it's easy to scare us to death.

First, it's important to know that Medicare premiums for Part B coverage'which pays for doctor visits, hospital outpatient care, and lab tests'have always gone up to keep pace with the increasing costs of medical services. Those premiums along with general tax revenues finance Part B benefits. This year, the premium for most beneficiaries is $99.90, and in the next few weeks Medicare will announce premiums for 2013. It's impossible to predict what the exact premiums will be in the years after that.

The health reform law, also known as Obamacare, did call for some changes in Medicare premiums. What seniors need to know is this: Those with higher incomes will pay more for their benefits. Until 2007, all beneficiaries paid the same amount for Part B coverage. But beginning that year, about two million people with higher incomes paid higher premiums.

The income threshold that triggers higher amounts was originally calculated so that it rose with the rate of inflation. But the recent health reform law froze the income thresholds which means more seniors will have to pay the higher premiums. Initially, about five percent of all Medicare beneficiaries were paying higher premiums each year based on a sliding scale. This year, the income-related premium ranges from about $140 per month to $320 and affects individuals with incomes greater than $85,000 and families with incomes over $170,000. By the end of the decade about 10 percent of seniors will pay a higher income-related premium.

Admittedly all this is a bit complicated, and it's easier to engage in scare tactics than explain the intricacies of Medicare's finances. So if you see an email with this message, discard it, and for heavens sake don't pass it along any more than you would do with an old-fashioned chain letter.

* Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama officials have advised the press that 'This e-mail was not created or approved for distribution by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama and is not reflective of the Company's position. It contains incorrect information received by an employee who redistributed it to six others."

More Blog Posts by Trudy Lieberman

author bio

Trudy Lieberman, a journalist for more than 40 years, is an adjunct associate professor of public health at Hunter College in New York City. She had a long career at Consumer Reports specializing in insurance, health care, health care financing and long-term care. She is a longtime contributor to the Columbia Journalism Review and blogs for its website, CJR.org, about media coverage of health care, Social Security and retirement. As a William Ziff Fellow at the Center for Advancing Health, she contributes regularly to the Prepared Patient Blog. Follow her on twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.


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