California Healthline Rounds Up Reactions to Compromise Medicare Rx Drug Benefit
The Senate today is expected to vote on compromise legislation for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), would provide coverage for low-income beneficiaries and those with "catastrophic" costs. The following are summaries of editorials and opinion pieces regarding the Graham-Smith compromise:
Akron Beacon Journal: Failure to reach a compromise on the prescription drug benefit before the August recess would provide further evidence that legislators are merely using the debate as a political tool, an Akron Beacon Journal editorial says. However, the most recent compromise offered by Sens. Graham and Smith is "encouraging evidence that there is some interest" in actually passing legislation. The Beacon Journal concludes, "If partisanship doesn't get in the way, lawmakers can still go home with something substantive to offer the country's senior citizens and disabled" (Akron Beacon Journal, 7/29).
Atlanta Journal-Constitution: If lawmakers were "truly serious" about passing a prescription drug benefit for Medicare, they would be "more realistic" in their proposals, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial. Many well-off seniors do not need a 5% discount on prescription drugs or help after paying $4,000 per year for drugs, nor do the 65% of seniors who already have drug coverage, the editorial states. In addition, many of the remaining 35% of seniors "simply don't want or need the coverage yet." However, some seniors "truly do need help." The editorial concludes, "Congress and taxpayers have an obligation to provide those needy elderly citizens with the drugs they need, and to provide coverage in case of medical catastrophe. Such a means-tested program would be affordable and easy enough to work out if lawmakers really wanted a success story instead of a campaign issue" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7/30).
Los Angeles Times: The Graham-Smith bill is a "sensible compromise," as long Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Graham and Smith do not acquiesce to GOP demands for more "freedom" for HMOs to offer a prescription drug benefit, a Los Angeles Times editorial says. In that case, some drug companies could join with HMOs to offer discounted drugs, while others would not, which would allow some HMOs to "control access to treatments" -- a "bad idea," according to the Times. Instead, the Graham-Smith bill should be passed in its current form, which would allow HMOs to deliver the benefit but require Medicare, which has "generally [done a] good job of deciding what inpatients treatments are cost effective," to decide on which drugs should be covered. According to the Times, the same idea should be used for an outpatient drug benefit. The editorial concludes, "Daschle may not get the votes needed to pass the drug benefit. ... But it's still possible to hope" (Los Angeles Times, 7/31).
Minneapolis Star Tribune: Although the Graham-Smith proposal may "cost too much [or] cover too little," it is the "best compromise to emerge so far," according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial. The Star Tribune says the plan would "at least" launch a "much-needed experiment in the ways that Washington might modernize Medicare." The editorial concludes, "If lawmakers cannot pass this plan it's hard to see when they, or elderly Americans, will get something better" (Minneapolis Star Tribune, 7/31).
New York Times: It is "critical" that the Senate pass a "meaningful" drug benefit prior to the August recess, a New York Times editorial says. The compromise bill offers a plan that "focuses help where it is most needed" -- low-income seniors and seniors with high drug bills. The editorial concludes, "It is more important to completely protect people with thousands of dollars in prescription expenses than to dole out bits of aid to those whose bills run in the hundreds" (New York Times, 7/29).
Richmond Times-Dispatch: It is "inevitable" that Congress will pass "some sort of [Medicare] benefit," and "a few years after implementation," costs will begin to "spiral out of control," a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial says. The editorial cites Pennsylvania's prescription drug benefit, which began in 1984 and has grown by 13% each year on average since 1997, as evidence. The Times-Dispatch predicts that "as surely as a tornado finds a trailer park," costs will skyrocket for a federal drug benefit, lawmakers will "express alarm," drug companies will be blamed, and seniors will be seen as "victims of corporate rapacity." The Times-Dispatch concludes, "Despite the lessons from Pennsylvania and elsewhere, nobody gets far in politics telling people there's no such thing as a free lunch" (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 7/28).
Wall Street Journal: If Republicans remain "united" this week against the compromise bill, they have the chance to "drive the debate ... in the direction of solving the problem instead of creating a huge new federal entitlement," a Wall Street Journal editorial says. Although the Democrats' plan incorporates some means testing, "even their new, 'scaled-down' bill is a Big Government stalking horse," the Journal writes. According to the Journal, Democrats want a "universal" benefit so they may "hook all American seniors and the entire drug industry on government" in order to "tak[e] the U.S. health care system one step closer to Canadian-style government care." However, the real "problem" is assisting low-income seniors afford drugs, the editorial states, concluding, "GOP Senators needn't rush to make concessions the way Oregon's Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) has. ... Republicans can win the senior drug debate, unless they panic in the final innings" (Wall Street Journal, 7/30).
- Washington Post: Medicare reform, particularly the Graham-Smith bill, "deserves to pass," according to a Washington Post editorial. The Post writes that a proposal must "balance the real need for drug coverage" against the high costs of such a benefit at a time the federal budget could experience huge deficits. Graham and Smith have written a proposal that "meets this challenge." The Post concludes, "Their colleagues should support them" (Washington Post, 7/31).
- Sara Fritz, St. Petersburg Times: President Bush should provide "needed leadership" in the debate over a prescription drug benefit instead of waiting in the background for a "winning issu[e]," St. Petersburg Times columnist Sara Fritz writes. Fritz notes that Bush "seldom ever commits himself to any initiative that is not a sure thing." Further, Bush has not participated in the debate as of yet because "he only wants to be identified with winning issues." Although Bush has stated "some very general principles" of what he hopes a prescription drug benefit would follow, he has not "gotten his hands dirty" to negotiate a compromise. Fritz concludes, "[T]he many elderly voters ... would rather see [Bush] try hard and fail to create a new Medicare drug benefit, rather than simply sit back watching members of Congress spin their wheels" (Fritz, St. Petersburg Times, 7/29).
- Robert Moffitt, Washington Times: The fact that lawmakers are debating adding "something as basic" as drug coverage to Medicare illustrates "how poorly designed" the program is and why "simply saddling it with a drug benefit" is not a solution to Medicare's "core problems," Robert Moffitt, director of domestic policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. Medicare is already "straining under the weight" of a complex fee schedule for doctors, a "pile of incomprehensible regulations" and a "bureaucratic structure" that allows patients little control over their care. However, Moffitt writes, a drug benefit is the "only approach" that many legislators seem ready to make. If lawmakers "truly want to help seniors," they would reform Medicare to more resemble the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program, under which members of Congress receive their health benefits. According to Moffitt, FEHBP is based on "patient choice and a competitive market," which could help "hea[l]" Medicare. Moffitt concludes, "Best of all, we know it works. Can lawmakers explain why they won't prescribe it?" (Moffitt, Washington Times, 7/31).
- Randall Nyp, Wichita Eagle: Nyp, the president and CEO of Wichita, Kan.-based Via Christi Regional Medical Center, writes in a Wichita Eagle opinion piece that lawmakers should "take a closer look" at adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare to ensure that the program's core funding for hospitals, family practitioners and specialists is sufficient to allow providers to continue offering services. Nyp concludes, "Let's make sure that as we move forward in Medicare reform, we don't add further benefits to the program, only to discover down the road that we lack the financial ability to pay for them" (Nyp, Wichita Eagle, 7/26).
This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.