Scenic photo of Dismals Canyon

Prescription Medicine for Seniors

June 28, 2002
In The News

Just recently, the House passed legislation providing seniors the right to choose a prescription drug plan under Medicare that is best for them.

We need a plan now. And beyond the partisan debate one truth has become stunningly clear: There are a lot of ways to do this wrong.

That’s because to do it right, a truly responsible plan has major challenges to meet:

  • It must be strong enough to help seniors afford prescriptions but not so bloated that it bankrupts Medicare sooner. 
  • It must target the poorest and sickest first while protecting the private drug plans that one-third of the seniors rely upon today. 
  • It must successfully drive down drug prices through competition but not threaten future medical breakthroughs by discouraging research. 
  • And it must preserve the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship while ensuring physicians and hospitals can afford to treat Medicare patients.

This legislation comes the closest to satisfying all the difficult challenges. This new legislation establishes a choice of guaranteed drug insurance plans under Medicare available to all seniors. It is anchored by an across-the-board 30 percent savings in prescription prices using group buying power to lower costs.

The plan gives extra help to the poor by providing essentially free prescription coverage for seniors who make less than $13,290 a year and couples making less than $17,910. They will receive at least $2,000 of free medicine a year, if needed. Statistics show 332,000 senior citizens in Alabama alone would qualify for this.

For other seniors who choose coverage, the premiums are a reasonable $33 a month with an annual deductible of $250. The deductible encourages prevention, stretches resources and gives seniors a stake in managing their illness.

The plan covers 80 percent of the first $1,000 in medicine and 50 percent of the next $1,000. That will be welcome news for the average senior in Alabama who consumes more than 18 prescriptions a year.

Because major and chronic illnesses can literally cost seniors everything, the plan provides catastrophic coverage for prescription costs above $3,700 a year. This means the plan, not the senior, will pay all medicine costs above that amount. This is real relief for many senior citizens, I have personally talked with many senior citizens who pay hundreds of dollars each month for their prescription drugs.

This plan helps cover the cost of prescription drug costs for companies and local governments to encourage them to keep offering good health plans to retired workers. And the plan assists states with soaring Medicaid budgets by gradually assuming all state costs for providing Medicare’s standard prescription benefits to Medicaid eligible populations.

Finally, to ensure seniors can visit a doctor they know, the bill sets aside $30 billion to increase reimbursements to hospitals, physicians, nurses, home health care agencies, rural health care providers and medical teaching hospitals.

Are there competing proposals? Yes. To be fair, there are alternative plans offered that are larger and naturally more attractive. Unfortunately, these proposals have tripled in size over just the past few months.

My worry is that while these alternatives appear more appealing today, the costs will explode in the future for baby boomers and our children. The principle Senate version is so enormous that it actually bankrupts the entire Medicare system within ten years of being put in place.

This is my biggest fear - that Congress will over promise, under deliver and pass down an impossible financial burden to future generations.

Americans are smart. They know when something sounds too good to be true that it probably is. They understand that their health concerns will be with them a long time. They need a prescription plan that will last as well.

I’m hopeful that Congress won’t put off for long significant reform of the bureaucratic mess that Medicare has become.

The bottom line, though, is that America continues to enjoy the finest hospitals, the best-trained physicians and the latest technology in the world. Each day brings news of breathtaking medical discoveries that spawn life-changing technologies.

It is the responsibility of Republicans and Democrats in Congress to work together to create a serious, responsible and permanent solution now to ensure these health care miracles are affordable, especially for our seniors citizens.