Scenic photo of Dismals Canyon

A Solution Looking for a Problem

January 21, 2007
In The News

How many times have we seen a solution looking for a problem? 

Democrats in the House of Representatives believe they’ve found a solution to lower Medicare prescription drug prices by allowing the federal government to negotiate their costs.  But, examining the current situation, I would suggest that we should look to correct the existing program rather than create a new one as offered and passed by House Democrats January 12.  

In 2003, Republicans passed and I supported a program that covered prescription drug costs for most seniors.  Under the Medicare Part D program, insurers negotiate drug prices with drug manufacturers.  The federal government is prohibited from interfering in the process, a move supported by more than 200 Democrats.

Under this system, the average premium for Medicare drug coverage in 2006 was $24 a month, a third lower than expected.  With competition between plans these low premiums are expected to continue in 2007.  Before Part D, only 59% of Medicare beneficiaries had comprehensive prescription drug coverage.  Today, that figure is 90%. 

Under the “Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act of 2007,” Medicare will negotiate prices directly with drug manufacturers.  Proponents proclaim this will mean lower costs for prescription medicines.  But will it?  The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says no.  Will there be unintended side effects?  My fear is yes, but we may not find out until it is too late. 

I’m also concerned that seniors, especially in rural areas, will have less choice and less flexibility under the Democrat proposal than they have now.  It’s important to remember that in any negotiation, either party can walk away at any time.  Drug companies could decide not to participate in the Democrat plan, further limiting choices available to seniors.  And, if they do participate and offer lower cost drugs to Medicare beneficiaries, will the cost for those same drugs rise for others?  Finally, will seniors be forced to abandon their local pharmacist and get their drugs through the mail?

Medicare beneficiaries must have access to the medications they require.  When you negotiate for a new car, you have to be willing to walk away if there is going to be an incentive for the dealer to come down in price.  I don’t want Medicare walking away from life saving drugs that our seniors depend on.  No amount of cost saving is worth cutting our seniors off from the medications they need.

I worry that in a drive to deliver cheaper medication, in addition to hurting the patients, we will also harm community pharmacists.  These are the men and women who provide personalized service to patients, especially in rural areas.  They are already battling against steep odds as government programs are cut and cut, while drugs get more advanced and patients need more of their time.  Many people depend on these small businessmen as their primary source of information regarding the proper use of their prescriptions.  If seniors are forced to go to mail order or other delivery methods, and community pharmacists are cut out of the process, who will counsel the patient?  Who will open the store after hours to fill a needed prescription?  

Unfortunately no one knows the answer to these questions.  While this is of vital importance to seniors, Democrats have offered very little in the way of answers.  Typically an issue of this magnitude would be the subject of Congressional hearings with debate on the merits of the plan and possibly amendments to correct any shortcomings.  But that didn’t happen with this bill.  Instead, Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the decision to bring this bill straight to the House floor where the only action Members could take was to vote “yes” or “no.” 

Over my opposition, this bill passed the House by a 255 to 170 vote.  This bill raised too many questions and threatens to harm Alabama’s seniors.  Seniors deserve the best that our government can offer and I don’t believe that this bill accomplishes that.  Should we be looking to improve Medicare Part D to ensure full drug coverage for seniors with the lowest possible prices?  Absolutely.  But to get there we don’t need to hunt for a solution before we understand the problem.