Trump to unveil order aiming to boost Medicare health program, woo seniors

By Jeff Mason

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump will unveil an executive order on Thursday aimed at strengthening the Medicare health program for seniors, seeking to improve its fiscal position and offer more affordable plan options, administration officials said.

The order, which Trump will discuss during a visit to a retirement community in Florida known as the Villages, is the Republican president's answer to some Democrats who are arguing for a broad and expensive expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans, proposals that Republicans reject.

It follows measures rolled out in recent months by the administration designed to curtail drug prices and correct other perceived problems with the U.S. healthcare system, though policy experts say those efforts are unlikely to slow the tide of rising drug prices in a meaningful way.

The Medicare program covers Americans who are 65 and older and includes traditional fee-for-service coverage in which the government pays healthcare providers directly and Medicare Advantage plans, in which private insurers manage patient benefits on its behalf.

Seniors are a key political constituency in America because a high percentage of them vote, and Florida is a political swing state that both parties woo in presidential elections.

The order is designed to show Trump's commitment to keeping Medicare focused on seniors, administration officials said ahead of the announcement.

The order pushes for Medicare to use more medical telehealth services, which is care delivered by phone or digital means.

One administration official, who described the order to Reuters, said that would reduce costs by cutting down on the number of expensive emergency room visits by patients; lower costs would help strengthen the program's finances.

The order directs the government to work to allow private insurers that operate Medicare Advantage plans to use new plan pricing methods, such as allowing beneficiaries to share in the savings when they choose lower-cost health services.

It also aims to bring payments for the traditional Medicare fee-for-service program in line with payments for Medicare Advantage.

Trump's plans contrast with the Medicare for All program promoted by Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist who is running to become the Democratic Party's nominee against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

Sanders' proposal, backed by left-leaning Democrats but opposed by moderates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, would create a single-payer system, effectively eliminating private insurance by providing government coverage to everyone, using the Medicare model.

"Medicare for All is Medicare for none," said Seema Verma, the administrator of the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, on a conference call with reporters, calling the proposal a "pipe dream" that would lead to higher taxes.

Sanders has argued that Americans would pay less for healthcare under his plan.

The White House is eager to show Trump making progress on healthcare, an issue Democrats successfully used to garner support and take control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections. Trump campaigned in 2016 on a promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, his predecessor President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law also known as "Obamacare," but was not successful.

In July, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said it would propose a rule for imports of cheaper drugs from Canada into the United States. A formal rule has not yet been unveiled.

The administration also issued an executive order in June demanding that hospitals and insurers make the prices they charge patients more transparent, as well as another in July encouraging novel treatments for kidney disease.

Trump considered other proposals that did not reach fruition.

A federal judge in July shot down an executive order that would have forced drugmakers to display their list prices in advertisements, and Trump scrapped another planned order that would have banned some of the rebate payments drugmakers make to payers.

The administration is also mulling a plan to tie some Medicare reimbursement rates for drugs to the price paid for those drugs by foreign governments, Reuters reported.


(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Caroline Humer and Carl O'Donnell; Editing by David Gregorio)