Chiquita Brooks-LaSure took the helm of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) on May 27 after a long Washington, D.C., career in health policy. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said during her confirmation hearing that her role “is clearly one of the most important health care jobs in America.” Brooks-LaSure talked with AARP in August about her vision for the Medicare program, prescription drug prices and the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
- Former deputy director for policy at the Center for Consumer Information and Insurance Oversight at CMS
- Was a Democratic staff member for the House Ways and Means Committee
- Served as a Medicaid analyst at the Office of Management and Budget
- Was a health policy analyst for several private sector firms, including Manatt Health
- Sworn in as administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on May 27
- Born in Willingboro, New Jersey
- Bachelor’s degree in politics from Princeton University
- Master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown University
- Married to Allyn Brooks-LaSure, vice president for communications at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
What do you see as the future of Medicare?
Where I can see Medicare going next is Congress increasing drug coverage and lowering prescription drug costs. This is a huge, important need. Administratively, we want to make sure that people can access all the benefits they are entitled to, including the Medicare Savings Programs. We want to continue to see innovation and growth in what we offer participants. And we really want to focus on health equity to make sure the program is working for all enrollees. We want to make sure it stays robust for current beneficiaries and future ones.
Do you foresee Medicare Advantage (MA) plans overtaking original Medicare?
Our role is to make sure that whatever coverage Medicare beneficiaries want to choose is available to them. So we want to make sure to preserve both those options. Part of that is making sure there’s parity. Right now it is easier for MA plans to offer additional benefits than it is for original Medicare. I think that both need to be viable options for people so that they can decide on their own which one they prefer and which makes the most sense for them.
So you believe that original Medicare should offer dental, vision and hearing benefits, as many MA plans do?
That’s going to be a decision for Congress. If Congress passes legislation, I will work to implement that as quickly as we possibly can.
Do you think that Medicare Advantage plans have lived up to their promise?
I think we have seen examples of MA plans doing innovative things in some areas, such as being able to coordinate care effectively and offering new benefits. It is the responsibility of CMS to continue to make sure that plans are living up to their role.
Will Medicare provide COVID-19 boosters free of charge?
Yes. Medicare has not set any limitations on COVID-19 vaccinations, so there’s nothing to prevent Medicare from paying for a third dose or boosters.
Do you believe that the expansions of telehealth made during the pandemic should become permanent?
My brother is a psychologist and has lots of Medicare patients. He was telling me that many were reluctant to get on the phone at first. But over time, people became much more comfortable with phone or video calls, and it really helped him to be able to see patients who weren’t ready to leave their homes. That’s a long way of saying I think that there is a strong interest in supporting and continuing to build on our telehealth offerings.
Should Medicare be at the forefront of the shift to more home- and community-based medical services?
Making sure that people are getting care in the most appropriate setting is a priority of the Biden administration; so is making sure that people’s health-related social needs are met. Some of this is going to require legislation. And, of course, in terms of what Medicare is permitted to cover, it’s something we’re looking forward to working on with Congress.
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What can CMS do to rein in fraudulent billing?
We’ve seen more scams during the pandemic and are committed to doing two things: first, educating providers to make sure they submit accurate information; second, being more proactive in identifying challenges.
Do you believe the eligibility age for Medicare should be raised or lowered?
The next focus of the broader health care policy agenda is making sure that people who don’t have coverage right now get it. The president has suggested lowering the Medicare age, and I think there are many good ideas to make sure people receive coverage in a sustainable way. In my own mind, the key is making the first priority being to cover those who have no options today. Of course, as CMS administrator, it’s my role to implement whatever Congress passes, and we’ll certainly do that.
What should the government do to lower prescription drug prices?
I get asked about it all the time. It's clearly on the minds of people. And the president has talked about letting Medicare negotiate drug prices. It's overwhelmingly popular and bipartisan, and what we're supportive of is Congress passing legislation so that CMS would be given authority to negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare patients.
Why do you think enrollment in ACA marketplaces has surged in recent months? And should the increases in the amount and availability of premium tax credits be made permanent?
I think we've seen two things. One, how much of a difference educating people about their options makes. We had a huge campaign at the start of the administration, encouraging people to enroll. And secondly, when you make coverage affordable to people, they enroll.
We want to be prepared for the next public health emergency. So, it's critical for us to make sure that people are enrolled in whatever coverage they qualify for, whether marketplace, Medicaid, Medicare or employer-sponsored insurance. It's so important that people have access to health care coverage.
Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.