Seniors deserve drug plan
By Senator Bill Nelson
August 11, 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Nearly 40 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare bill at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Library in Independence, Mo. Present at this symbolic signing ceremony was former President Truman himself -- the first chief executive to have endorsed the idea of health insurance under Social Security. It had taken 20 years, but President Truman's idea to improve the quality of life for America's seniors finally came to fruition in the Medicare program.
Today, members of Congress are considering new legislation aimed at expanding Medicare and maintaining it as a vital program that millions of seniors can continue to rely on.
Most members overwhelmingly agree that seniors need drug coverage to help with the rising cost of prescriptions. But we now need to resolve big differences between Senate and House prescription-drug proposals to best address the problem.
This June, I supported a comprehensive expansion of the Medicare program, along with 76 of my colleagues in the Senate. This legislation is far from perfect, because it has a coverage gap that needs closing.
And although the bill will improve access to lower-priced drugs by allowing the importation of prescriptions from Canada, it should further use the purchasing power of Medicare's 40 million beneficiaries for bulk buying to significantly lower the cost.
The bill also ought to ensure that the passage of a Medicare prescription drug benefit will not compromise existing employer-sponsored plans. Today, almost one-third of Medicare beneficiaries who do have prescription drug coverage get it from their former employer. Currently, there is no provision to protect retirees from employer plans dropping them after the enactment of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
Even with these flaws, the Senate bill offers something our current Medicare system lacks -- specifically, the beginnings of a real prescription-drug benefit.
On the other hand, the House-passed legislation actually could worsen the situation seniors currently face. It calls for the privatization of Medicare in 2010, which Medicare's own chief actuary says will cause premium increases of up to 25 percent for beneficiaries who want to remain in the traditional Medicare program. With an increase like this, Medicare will no longer provide a viable health-care safety net.
The House bill also earmarks $174 billion for programs unrelated to Medicare, while leaving some seniors with no prescription drug coverage at all. Even worse, the bill fails to provide an alternative for beneficiaries without access to a private plan.
Finally, buried in both bills are drastic cuts to Medicare coverage for cancer care, along with new rules for governmental control over the distribution of chemotherapy drugs. We need to remove these cancer-treatment cuts from any final compromise.
Rather than waiting another 20 years to see an important program enacted, like President Truman did, I hope a Medicare prescription-drug benefit comes to fruition now. While the Senate's version of this legislation is not a panacea, it does provide a solid foundation for improvement that the House bill simply doesn't offer.
As Congress negotiates a compromise on this legislation, we must provide our seniors with a prescription drug benefit that is comprehensive and fair. We owe it to the millions of seniors who, after paying taxes all their lives, find themselves forced to choose between treating their ailments or meeting other basic needs.
Bill Nelson is a Democratic U.S. senator from Florida who serves on the Senate Commerce, Budget, Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees.