Doing something right for a change

Of all the developments in Washington with George W. Bush as president, nothing has been as impressive as the Medicare reform that passed Congress yesterday.

The bill confronts the three most pressing issues plaguing Medicare – financial solvency, prescription drugs and the elimination of insurance policies by many of the nation’s employers.

Medicare, which was established to aid seniors in their medical costs, is going to run out of money, and soon. The federal program, ripe with fraud and corruption, is exploited because it guarantees payment. To make matters worse, the average American’s age is increasing, meaning the number of seniors utilizing Medicare benefits will soon surpass those contributing funds to it.

Beyond this obvious, impending financial crisis is the issue of costly prescription drugs. As more seniors become dependent on drugs to maintain their quality of life, and as those drugs become increasingly more expensive, the issue of government-subsidized prescription drugs has become one of the hottest issues of modern politics.

Most do not know what this reform entails beyond sound bites from advocates and opponents. Even worse, college-age students and 20-somethings, who will be footing most of the bill for years, are oblivious to its ramifications.

Financially, the bill will strengthen Medicare by encouraging competition with the private sector, requiring Congress to confront Medicare issues rather than ignore them, and introducing limited prescription drug coverage.

Private competition has been a hotly debated issue, but I consider it a perfectly American solution to a distinctly American problem. The road map for competition boils down to this: In 2008, Medicare users in a handful of metropolitan areas will be able to choose between the traditional Medicare system and other private plans. Consumers, finally, will be able to decide what is best for themselves, and the competition might even reduce the cost of some coverage. It is not mandatory that anyone leave Medicare, nor is this a sweeping change to the system. Simply put, it is a limited experiment to see if outside forces can challenge the bureaucracy.

Additionally, a provision in the bill requires a future Congress to confront a failing Medicare program years before it is projected to collapse, mandating lawmakers find a solution, rather than quietly sweeping the issue under the rug.

Prescription drug coverage is the truly historic aspect of this proposal, providing seniors the help they need, exactly where they need it. Here’s the skinny: Seniors will be eligible for a drug-discount card in six months, which will take 25 percent off the retail cost of prescription drugs. Forty million new Medicare beneficiaries will then have access to a sweeping drug benefit starting in 2006. For $35 per month, premium coverage will cover 75 percent of drug costs up to $2,200 after a $275 deductible. There would then be a gap in coverage between $2,200 and $3,600, after which beneficiaries would only be required to make limited co-payments.

Opponents scream that such gaps in coverage and premium fees are unfair. I challenge them to provide a better solution. The plan, as it stands, expands the Medicare system dramatically but does so with financial solvency in mind. It strives to help those who need it, but in a responsible manner.

The bill does not stop there. It provides tax incentives to employers to maintain health coverage for senior employees. It provides more than $25 billion in new assistance to hospital and health-care providers. And, I stress, it maintains the core coverage of Medicare that already exists.

Sound too good to be true? In some regard, I agree. It is a sweeping and ground-breaking piece of legislation, and one that detractors misrepresent. Many claim it will unfairly benefit some Medicare users more than others. I read such comments in amazement. While some might not gain as much from this change, everyone does still gain something.

The bill secured the endorsement of the AARP, the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association, as well as bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

Crying over problems is one thing; providing answers is another. In the Medicare prescription drug bill, we see government at its very best – a proactive entity first committed to helping those who need it but equally committed to fiscal responsibility and bureaucratic accountability.

Steven Snyder is a columnist. He welcomes comments at [email protected].