Medicare Premiums Up, But Not as Much as Expected

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Good news for seniors: The government says Medicare's basic monthly premium will rise less than expected next year, by $3.50 for most.

It could be good, too, for President Barack Obama and Democrats struggling for older Americans' votes in a close election.

At $99.90 per month, the 2012 Part B premium for outpatient care will be about $7 less than projected as recently as May. The additional money that most seniors will pay works out to about 10% of the average Social Security cost-of-living increase they'll also be due.

Some recently enrolled younger retirees will actually pay less. They were charged $115.40 a month this year, and they'll see that go down to $99.90.

The main reason for lower-than-expected premiums seems to be the connection between Social Security COLAs and Medicare. Some also cite a moderation in health care costs.

But the Obama administration is hoping seniors will get a simpler takeaway message: Medicare is under sound management.

Older voters went for Republicans in the 2010 elections, after Obama's health care overhaul law cut Medicare spending to help finance coverage for the uninsured. Since then, the administration has worked hard to reverse any perception that Obama is steering Medicare into decline.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said it's "pretty remarkable" that premiums will stay in check. She reassured seniors that they have nothing to fear from the health care law.

"Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare is providing better benefits at lower cost," said Sebelius.

Republicans weren't buying it.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said the brunt of the health law's Medicare cuts are still to come. "More importantly," added Antonia Ferrier, "lower Medicare premiums are being driven by lower than average Medicare spending due to the slow economy" — not the health care law. Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Senate panel overseeing Medicare.

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