WASHINGTON -- Millions of senior citizens in popular private insurance plans offered through Medicare will be getting a reprieve from some of the most controversial cuts in President Barack Obama's health care law.
In a policy shift critics saw as political, the Health and Human Services Department has decided to award quality bonuses to hundreds of Medicare Advantage plans rated merely average.
The $6.7 billion infusion could head off service cuts that would have been a headache for Obama and Democrats in next year's elections for the White House and Congress. More than half of the roughly 11 million Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans rated average.
The insurance industry said the bonuses will turn what would have averaged out as a net loss for the plans in 2012 into a slight increase.
In a recent letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, two prominent GOP lawmakers questioned what they termed the administration's "newfound support" for Medicare Advantage.
The shift "may represent a thinly veiled use of taxpayer dollars for political purposes," wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.
Camp heads the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Medicare. Hatch is his counterpart as ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee.
Seniors are among the deepest skeptics of the new health care law. A recent AP-GfK poll found that 62 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of health care, as contrasted with 52 percent approval among Americans overall. The poll also found that seniors are more likely to trust Republicans than Democrats on health.
The administration said the reason for the bonuses is quality improvement, not politics, and the program will be evaluated as it goes along.
"We are looking at whether an alternative payment incentive structure would lead to broader quality improvements across all Medicare Advantage plans, by giving incentives for a broader range of plans to improve," Medicare spokesman Brian Cook said.
Medicare covers seniors and disabled people. About one-fourth of beneficiaries are signed up in Medicare Advantage plans that offer lower out-of-pocket costs and more comprehensive benefits than the traditional program.
Some of the heaviest enrollment is in politically contested states, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado.
The health care law cut $145 billion over 10 years from Medicare Advantage, partly to correct a widely acknowledged problem with overpayments to the plans. Those cuts start off modestly in 2012 and build up.
Insurers were expected to shift the burden to beneficiaries in the form of fewer services and higher out-of-pocket costs, triggering an exodus back to traditional Medicare.
"The net result is that the boat didn't get rocked," said independent analyst Dan Mendelson, president of the information firm Avalere Health. "It's fair to say that (Medicare) could not tolerate dislocation, given the political climate."
But Mendelson also said he agrees with the administration that the new money will get more plans thinking about how to improve quality, if they want to remain profitable.
The health care law itself tried to soften the impact of Medicare Advantage cuts by providing quality bonuses for highly-rated plans that received four or five stars in a government grading system.
Then, in a policy shift quietly completed this month, HHS decided to grade on the curve. Average-quality plans garnering three or three-and-a-half stars also would get bonuses, although at a lower percentage than top-tier plans.