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Retirees fear proposed Medicare reforms will drive their costs beyond means

| Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

Standing more than 6 feet tall with ramrod straight posture and a thick shock of white hair, James Smith, 76, looks the picture of health.

But the Dunbar man, who retired from U.S. Steel after 40 years as a barge deckhand, said Medicare has a lot to do with that. Smith takes 27 pills a day since a brutal bout with complications from salivary gland cancer last fall. He hopes proposals pending in Washington don't hurt Medicare and those who rely on it.

“The benefits are beautiful for me. If we lose them, we'll all be in a lot of trouble,” he said.

Smith was among scores of retired union workers who gathered in West Mifflin on Tuesday, the 48th anniversary of Medicare, as the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans rallied its members against Medicare proposals it says would increase their costs.

Eva Dominguez, a legislative representative for the Alliance of Retired Americans in Washington, told the group Obama administration proposals would increase deductibles for new Medicare beneficiaries, place surcharges on Medigap policies and add deductibles for home health services. Proposals in the Republican-controlled House would replace traditional Medicare with vouchers, raise the age for benefits and charge higher premiums of all seniors with incomes in excess of $47,000 a year, she said.

Policy experts on both sides of the aisle have been adamant that Medicare reforms are a must as the baby-boomer generation moves into retirement and an ever-growing portion of the population depends on the insurance program.

Jean Friday, 80, of Belle Vernon, president of the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans, a group of 300,000 union retirees including steelworkers, teachers and others across the state, said her members are awakening to changes in Medicare that could cost them.

“People don't even know these things are happening until they come home and get hit with a big bill,” Friday said.

The prospect of higher costs and bigger bills worries John Capane, 85, of Clairton.

“I really can't afford much more than I'm paying now,” said Capane, who retired from U.S. Steel's Clairton works.

Although seniors often get the blame for health care cost increases, a study by the Society of Actuaries in May found that America's elders are “not an overwhelming driver of increased health care spending.”

The rising costs of technology, malpractice and defensive medical practices are among the competing theories of the likely cost drivers, said David Newman, executive director of the Health Care Cost Institute.

Much of the debate over containing Medicare costs stems from the fact that the Affordable Care Act's proposals to cut costs by eliminating inefficiencies rely on designs that are unproven, Newman said.

Accountable Care Organizations designed to manage all care for patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease may produce savings, he said.

“But it will take a while to figure out how to do it,” Newman said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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