House lawmakers clash over impact of adding dental, vision and hearing benefits to Medicare

Democrats and Republicans clashed over whether adding dental, vision and hearing benefits will hasten Medicare’s insolvency and the necessity of the benefits already covered by Medicare Advantage.

The House Ways and Means Committee voted 24-19 along party lines to advance legislation that adds dental, vision and hearing benefits to traditional Medicare. The legislation will be part of a $3.5 trillion infrastructure package being considered by Congress.

While the legislation has a ways to go to become law, the markup hearing Friday detailed how congressional Republicans aim to attack the expansion efforts by Democrats.

Republican lawmakers objected that MA plans already largely offer the benefits Democrats are attempting to add.

“Coverage is available without hundreds of billions of dollars of reckless government spending,” said Rep. Adrian Smith, R-Nebraska. “Most of these plans that offer these additional benefits do so without additional premiums.”

Republicans were also concerned that adding the new spending could hasten Medicare’s insolvency, pointing toward a recent estimate showing the hospital insurance fund that pays providers will run out of money by 2026.

RELATED: Experts say adding dental coverage to Medicare won't trigger major shift away from Medicare Advantage

Recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show 94% of Medicare Advantage enrollees are in plans that have dental coverage access.

There is also supplemental coverage for traditional Medicare beneficiaries. However, a study released Friday by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said that while most enrollees have supplemental coverage, about 27% of enrollees’ dental costs are covered by such insurance.

Democrats also responded that not all Medicare beneficiaries are in MA.

“The vast majority prefer Medicare as it was originally set up,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “Some have gone to private plans.”

He added that some of the private plans could be fine, but “some have significant limitations that may not exist under traditional Medicare. What this is all about is refusing to honor a program that works for Americans for seniors that chose to stay in traditional Medicare.”

The Ways and Means legislation aims to introduce the dental benefit in 2028 and have traditional Medicare cover preventive services such as cleanings and major treatments like root canals.

The legislation would also install hearing aid coverage in 2023 and vision coverage by Oct. 1, 2022.

Democrats are aiming to use a procedural move called reconciliation that would ensure budget bills can clear the Senate via a simple majority and bypass the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Under this move, Democrats can clear the legislation via narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and without Republican support.

The Senate is expected to draft its own part of the legislation when it returns next week. The $3.5 trillion package could include other healthcare policies such as giving Medicare the authority to negotiate for lower drug prices.