Daines touts Medicare program at Belgrade meeting

Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines sat with a group of seniors Friday morning between gym equipment in Belgrade to talk about tapping into care through private health plans backed by the government.

A handful of people, selected to talk in advance, described access to places like The Gym of Belgrade through Medicare Advantage — plans offered by private companies that contract with Medicare.

Much of the conversations doubled down on Daines’ support for the program that he said covers 50,000 Montanans.

“The Medicare Advantage program ensures our seniors have access and, an important word, affordable, an important word, high-quality health care,” Daines said at the start of the meeting.

The plans are popular. More than 24 million people are enrolled, or roughly a third of people on Medicare.

One of the selling points often touted for Medicare Advantage is that it offers people flexibility and programs that traditional Medicare doesn’t offer. That includes things like a gym membership through a fitness program called SilverSneakers, the main focus of Friday’s meeting.

People at the roundtable talked about the program as a way to avoid high-cost medications and to prevent other illnesses. The most commonly repeated concern was that gyms may opt out of the program because its reimbursement rate falls too far below regular membership prices.

There’s a trade off to Medicare Advantage. The plans have a more limited network of doctors and other providers compared to traditional Medicare.

In an interview after the meeting, Daines said that can be a problem for some Montanans.

“We still have to work on some of the challenges we face in more rural parts of our state,” Daines said.

He added there are issues left to work out with Medicare Advantage.

Daines recently introduced the Medicare Advantage Quality Payment Relief Act. He said it’s an effort to do away with provisions that unintentionally impacted the program’s reimbursements.

“It’s getting back to some formulas that need to be adjusted to make sure that our seniors get their full and fair reimbursements,” he said.

Maine Independent Sen. Angus King and Minnesota Democrat Sen. Tina Smith are listed as cosponsors of the bill.

President Donald Trump has advocated for bolstering private plans like Medicare Advantage. That’s often come tied to Trump’s continued rallying cry to unpin the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.

The president’s proposed budget includes an $844 billion pool of money for a still undefined health care plan.

When asked whether there’s a future in which lawmakers agree on how the act works or if it needs to be replaced, Daines said Friday it’s going to “require bipartisan cooperation” to move forward on plans related to health care.

He said the work to “fix” Medicare Advantage is evidence that Democrats and Republicans can work together on health care reform.

Protecting Medicare has been a popular topic for lawmakers but there’s a lot of debate on how and what health services the federal government plays a role in.

“The bottom line is about making sure we have access to quality health care that’s affordable,” Daines said. “Both sides of the aisle agree with those outcomes. How we get there is where the debate will lie.”

The people who shared their stories Friday were selected by the day’s host, Coalition for Medicare Choices. The coalition works “to protect and strengthen Medicare Advantage,” according to its website.