Coverage for outpatient care under Medicare Part B is optional, but more than 90 percent of the program's 52 million beneficiaries sign up. Medicare covers people 65 and older, the disabled and those with serious kidney disease.
Part B pays for office visits to doctors, preventive services and medical equipment. It's a good deal by any measure, since 75 percent of the cost is borne by taxpayers, with premiums set to cover the remaining 25 percent. Still, many beneficiaries are on tight budgets so the monthly premium is a closely watched indicator.
Last month the government announced a 1.7 percent cost-of-living increase for the 56 million Americans on Social Security. That works out to raises averaging $19 a month come January. The typical increase for retired workers will be slightly larger.
Obama's health care law reined in Medicare spending by curtailing payments to hospitals, insurers, drug companies and other service providers. Democrats want to focus the next round of cuts on providers, particularly pharmaceutical companies. But Republicans are looking for more significant changes in the program, such as increasing the eligibility age to 67.
The health care law improved preventive care for Medicare recipients and cut costs for people with high prescription drug bills. It also initiated a multitude of experiments on how to deliver quality care at lower cost for taxpayers. And it set up a cost control board to limit future increases in Medicare spending.