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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Calls intensify to roll back Medicare premium increase

WASHINGTON – The head of a Senate panel that oversees Medicare says the Biden administration should use its legal authority to cut back a hefty premium increase soon hitting millions of enrollees, as a growing number of Democratic lawmakers call for action amid worries over rising inflation.

Last month, Medicare announced one of the largest increases ever in its “Part B” monthly premium for outpatient care, nearly $22, from $148.50 currently to $170.10 starting in January.

The agency attributed roughly half the hike, about $11 a month, to the need for a contingency fund to cover Aduhelm, a new $56,000 Alzheimer’s drug from Biogen whose benefits have been widely questioned.

For most Medicare enrollees, the premium is deducted from their Social Security checks.

Without further action, it would swallow up a significant chunk of seniors’ 5.9% cost of living increase.

“Rather than assessing the current $21.60 per month … premium increase in full, I urge you to reduce the amount,” Senate Finance Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote health secretary Xavier Becerra.

“Taking this type of approach would reduce near-term expenses for seniors on fixed incomes.” A copy of the letter was provided to The Associated Press on Monday.

There was no immediate response from the administration.

But Wyden wrote Becerra that as secretary of Health and Human Services, he has “broad authority” to determine the “appropriate contingency margin” to use in setting premiums.

Given that Medicare is still developing its formal policy for covering Aduhelm, Wyden said there is a clear rationale for collecting less up front at this particular time.

“It is possible that any near-term Medicare coverage for Aduhelm … could have a limited and narrow scope,” he wrote. “Uncertainty” over the drug’s financial impact on Medicare appeared to be driving much of the calculation of the new premium, Wyden noted.

Soon after Medicare announced the increase last month, Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders called on the administration to roll it back.

Wyden also said he had concerns and was exploring options.

And last week Democratic Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, Mark Kelly of Arizona, and Jack Reed of Rhode Island wrote President Joe Biden that “we must address this issue as quickly as possible.”

Some groups representing older people are anticipating a backlash from Medicare recipients if nothing is done.

“Once the Part B premium for 2022 starts getting deducted from their Social Security benefits, I think Congress is really going to be in for it,” said analyst Mary Johnson of the nonpartisan Senior Citizens League, which advocates to preserve benefits for retirees.

The Labor Department reported Friday that consumer prices jumped 6.8% over the past year, the biggest inflation increase in nearly four decades. Prices for basic necessities from food, to energy costs, to housing were at the root.

Inflation worries are adding to the political uncertainty for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

Virgin Atlantic gets infusion of cash

LONDON – Virgin Atlantic has received $530 million of new funding from its shareholders to help the airline ride out the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement Monday, the company said its shareholders, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, will provide the money in line with their stakes.

Virgin Group owns 51% of the airline, while Delta owns the rest.

“Our story has been well documented during the pandemic,” Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss said.

“Throughout, our shareholders Virgin Group and Delta Air Lines, and our creditors, have been a source of unwavering support.”

Like the whole industry, the pandemic has hit the airline hard, and it has had to raise money on several occasions.

Growing hopes that the rollout of vaccines and the lifting of restrictions and travel bans would aid the recovery have been dented recently by the emergence of the more transmissible omicron variant.

Still, the airline said it anticipates a return to sustainable profitability in 2023, driven by a recovery in air travel demand and already delivered cost savings.

It said it has fully financed new aircraft deliveries through 2024 and is committed to sustainable air travel.

“With the addition of new routes and a continuing focus on operating a cleaner, greener fleet, there is much to look forward to,” said Josh Bayliss, CEO of the Virgin Group, which also has stakes in an array of businesses in entertainment, finance and health.

From wire reportsDelta CEO Ed Bastian said Virgin Atlantic’s business has “transformed, allowing them to emerge from the pandemic a stronger airline.”