Nearly 170,000 Montana seniors and 8,000 Montana military retirees rely on Medicare. Many more are paying into the program for this earned benefit so it’s important that all Montanans understand the facts.

There’s a lot of false information going around. And as you prepare to head to the polls this November, you deserve an honest discussion. And you deserve the facts.

You may have seen TV ads attacking my colleague, Sen. Jon Tester, for his vote for the Affordable Care Act. In the ads, actor Pat Boone tells seniors they’re going to lose Medicare benefits as result of the health care law.

I was disappointed to see these ads, because their intention is to create confusion and fear. They are just plain untrue. Montanans deserve better.

So before the electoral silly season gets too far underway, let’s set the record straight: Health care reform did not cut any guaranteed benefits for seniors. In fact, the law explicitly forbids insurers from doing anything that would reduce Medicare benefits seniors are entitled to under the law, and it creates new benefits that thousands of Montana seniors are already enjoying.

Here’s an example: Because of the Affordable Care Act, 10,415 Montana seniors who fell into the donut hole saw the cost of their brand-name prescription drugs cut in half. That’s an average savings of $615 each and $6.4 million total.

At the same time, 115,065 Montana seniors received free preventive services – like mammograms and other cancer screenings – or a free annual wellness visit with their doctor.

Since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), tells us that the premiums seniors’ pay in Medicare Advantage are down 16 percent and enrollment in the program is up by 17 percent – meaning even more seniors now have access to the private insurance plans they choose at a lower cost.

Before health care reform, billions of Medicare dollars were being wasted on huge overpayments to private insurance companies in Medicare Advantage, and seniors were bearing the brunt of the cost. In fact, the independent MedPAC Commission found that in 2009 Medicare wasted almost $12 billion in overpayments to private insurance companies compared to traditional Medicare. And as a result, the typical couple in Medicare had to pay an extra $90 per year, even if they weren’t enrolled in those overpaid plans.

So, health reform strengthened Medicare by cutting down on those overpayments to private insurance companies while protecting seniors’ benefits. Thanks to those efforts, Medicare’s independent experts say the program now has enough money to continue for 12 more years. Without health reform, Medicare would go broke in four years.

Keeping Medicare solvent an extra eight years is a good step forward, but we know it’s not enough. That’s why health reform created a failsafe, the Independent Payment Advisory Board or IPAB, to protect Medicare’s promise to our seniors if spending is too high. It’s a group of independent experts including doctors, hospital leaders, patients and consumers who work together to recommend policies to Congress to help Medicare provide better care at lower costs. To ensure accountability to voters, every member of the panel must be confirmed by the Senate and all of the board’s reports must be made public. The group is also specifically prohibited by law from recommending any policies that ration care, raise taxes, increase premiums or cost-sharing, restrict benefits, or modify who is eligible for Medicare.

Like any failsafe, this group only goes into action only when Medicare spending gets dangerously high. The good news is that the health care law is already having a positive impact on costs. Congress’s non-partisan scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), says that per-beneficiary, Medicare spending will grow 1 percent above inflation in the next 10 years. This is a major reduction compared to the past two decades, when spending grew 5 percent above inflation. As a result, CBO says that IPAB won’t even be needed until 2022 at the earliest.

In the meantime, we need leaders in Washington who will work together and make tough decisions to help us continue to strengthen Medicare so we don’t need a failsafe.

You’ll decide who those leaders will be. And as your elected officials, we owe it to you to make sure you get the facts before you make those decisions in November.

Max Baucus is a U.S. senator for Montana.

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