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Guest commentary: Checking in on the second anniversary of the Affordable Care Act

By Kathleen Sebelius

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
March 20, 2012

This week, I met with senior citizens at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park to mark the two-year anniversary of the Affordable Care Act. Since the health care law took effect, people across the country have started to see its benefits in their own lives. And that's especially true for seniors who continue to save money and see a stronger Medicare program because of the law.

Here are a few ways that the law already is helping seniors.

First, Medicare now covers recommended preventive services like flu shots and bone-density scans for free when provided by qualified and participating physicians or providers.

Before the health care law, too many seniors had to go without critical preventive care because they couldn't afford the co-pay. Now, people with Medicare can get these preventive services without thinking twice about it — a benefit that more than 32 million seniors and Americans with disabilities have taken advantage of. Seniors on Medicare also are getting a free annual wellness visit, which is an opportunity to sit down and spend time talking to your doctor about your health.

Second, seniors are getting cheaper prescription drugs under the health care law. In the past, as many as one in four seniors went without a prescription every year because they couldn't afford it. Today, if you're in the prescription drug coverage gap known as the "donut hole," you receive a 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs automatically when you fill your prescription — and you don't have to do anything to get it.

In 2010 and 2011 more than 5.1 million seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare have saved more than $3.1 billion on prescription drugs thanks to the new law. And for St. Louis resident Fritzi Lainoff and her husband, the discounts meant $2,500 back in their pockets last year. "It was a blessing," she said. "With rising food and utility costs, and only a small pension and limited savings, the law's Medicare savings have made an enormous difference."

Already, in the first two months of 2012, 70,000 seniors and people with disabilities on Medicare have received $65 million in savings in the donut hole thanks to the Affordable Care Act. Going forward, the donut hole will get smaller each year, as the discounts continue and your Part D plan starts to cover more costs. And by 2020, the donut hole will be closed.

Third, we're putting money back into the Medicare Trust Fund and strengthening it for the future by fighting fraud. The law has given us some of the strongest tools in history to stamp out fraud and keep criminals from targeting our health care system. We have already strengthened the penalties for criminals who steal from Medicare and put more law enforcement on the ground to find them. Combined, these efforts recovered more than $4 billion last year, sending a clear message that defrauding and stealing from taxpayers will not be tolerated.

Fourth, we're helping doctors and hospitals share their best methods for improving their patients' health. Sometimes the smallest things, like following up with a patient after she's been discharged from the hospital and helping doctors better communicate with one another, make the biggest difference. And we're working to help best practices like these spread to every corner of the country, so that everyone has access to the best care possible, no matter where they live.

Here's the best news: Even as benefits improve and the program is strengthened, many beneficiaries have seen their premiums fall. Medicare Advantage premiums have dropped 7 percent since last year and enrollment has risen about 10 percent. And thanks to the law, the average Medicare beneficiary is expected to save about $4,000 over the next 10 years.

Since the Affordable Care Act became law two years ago, millions of seniors have benefited from cheaper prescriptions and better access to the preventive care they need to stay healthy. They have seen, in their own lives, the impact of a Medicare program that is strong today and getting stronger.

Kathleen Sebelius is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary.