It has been six months since the highly contested Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also called health care reform, became law. Polls show that people remain worried about how the law will affect their health care. There is a lot of talk about big cuts in Medicare, and seniors are worried their coverage will be reduced or that their doctors will no longer accept Medicare. Should they be worried?The worst news is for people who love their Medicare Advantage plans. This program pays private insurance companies to enroll seniors in managed-care networks. Many plans offer more benefits than “plain” Medicare, such as dental and vision coverage and health club memberships.The problem with Medicare Advantage is that taxpayer’s aren’t getting their money’s worth from the program. Much of the recent increases in Medicare costs can be traced to overpayments to insurance companies offering the subsidized plans.You’ve heard that Medicare is going broke? Well, Medicare Advantage is a big reason for that.A Medicare Advantage benefit costs the government 14 percent more than exactly the same benefit offered through regular Medicare. In some parts of the country, the difference is as high as 20 percent. That extra money is being eaten up in marketing and administrative costs, and in profits to the insurance companies.According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, all Medicare beneficiaries, including those enrolled in regular Medicare, are paying for these overpayments through higher premiums. HHS says that this year these subsidies are adding about $3.60 per month to premiums.But there is no proof that the program is providing better health care than regular Medicare; just that it’s more expensive. And for this reason, most of the cuts to Medicare provided in the health care reform law are cuts to Medicare Advantage, not regular Medicare.These cuts won’t go into effect all at once. In 2011, the subsidy going to private insurance companies will be frozen at 2010 levels. After that, the payments will be reduced an average of 12% per year, until costs are more in line with the cost of regular Medicare. Beginning in 2014, the private insurers offering Medicare Advantage plans must maintain a “medical loss ratio” of at least 85%, which is a fancy way of saying that 85 percent of the subsidies and premiums they receive must be paid out in benefits. On the other hand, companies that meet certain benchmarks for quality of service are eligible for a bonus.Bottom line: according to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2019 the private insurance companies offering these plans will receive $136 billion less than they would have received at the current level of subsidy.Naturally, the private insurance companies do not like this one bit, and they say they will drop out of the program if these cuts aren’t repealed. And when those Medicare Advantage taxpayer subsidies stop being a cash cow for those companies, they might very well drop out of the program. Companies that stay in the program probably will eliminate some of the extra benefits that make Medicare Advantage popular.Some seniors will be unhappy about this, but it’s important for them to understand why it is happening — Medicare Advantage as it is has been dragging the entire Medicare program closer and closer to bankruptcy.Before the Medicare program began in 1965, only 56 percent of people over age 65 had any health insurance. Today, without Medicare, the percentage of seniors with health insurance would be very tiny, indeed. It’s a sad fact that in our autumn years, nearly all of us will suffer increasing problems with our health. Some ailments — arthritis, heart disease — are common, and some are rare, such as mesothelioma cancer, rarely diagnosed before the patient is 50. Either way, senior health care is expensive, and private insurance companies don’t want seniors as customers — unless taxpayers are supplying the profits.In 2009, while health care reform was being hotly debated in Congress and town hall meetings all over America, some insurance companies deliberately misinformed their customers about what the bill would do to their Medicare Advantage Plans. One major Medicare Advantage provider sent out a letter to its Medicare Advantage customers claiming that Congress and President Obama would cut “important benefits and services” provided by Medicare.Remember the stories about silver-haired grandmothers marching in protests with signs saying “Keep Government Out of My Medicare”? People laughed at them, but it’s possible those were misinformed Medicare Advantage customers.But the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is not cutting any benefit from Medicare. In fact, it is adding a few new benefits. Beginning this week, Medicare patients will not have to pay a co-payment to the doctor for preventive care or for an annual checkup. The health care reform law also will gradually close the infamous “doughnut hole,” the gap in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage that costs some Medicare patients thousands of dollars every year.Last year, the trustees of the Medicare program announced that by 2017, the part of Medicare that pays hospital bills would be out of money, and Medicare would have to stop paying those bills. This year, the same trustees said the hospital fund should be good until 2029, thanks mostly to the health care reform bill. This tells us the struggle to save the program isn’t over, but we’re moving in the right direction.As we get closer to the November midterm elections, watch out for politicians citing the cuts to Medicare Advantage as a reason to repeal the health care reform bill. Without those cuts, Medicare itself is in grave danger.