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AFTER EIGHT YEARS OF EMPTY promises, the Clinton/Gore administration has rejected bipartisan solutions to America's Medicare crisis and left seniors with little coverage. Now Vice President Al Gore is at it again, proposing a dangerous Medicare plan that promises more than it provides.
Sensing the demand for a prescription drug benefit caused by the administration's leadership deficit, Al Gore has unveiled a plan to tack a costly one onto the current Medicare program. Gore's proposal would cost at least $ 253 billion -- quite a price tag considering the woeful financial status of the current Medicare program. But problems with the Gore plan go well beyond its expense. Behind the focus-group tested rhetoric, the Gore plan is a one-size-fits-all bureaucratic nightmare that forces seniors to pay more for less, divests them of choices and threatens innovations in life-saving medicine.
Under the Gore plan, when a citizen turns 641/2, he or she will be presented with a 'till-death-do-you-part decision of whether or not to opt into the nationalized drug program. Citizens who decide to join will have the program's premium taken from their Social Security checks for the rest of their lives, while those opting out will have to fend for themselves.
Each month a minimum of $ 25, a figure that will double by the end of the decade, would be deducted from seniors' Social Security checks to pay the premium for this plan. On top of this, seniors would then pay 50 percent of the cost to fill each prescription out of their own pockets. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Gore's plan would save the average senior a meager 13 cents a day.
Why does Gore want to play the part of Regis Philbin when you are 64 and ask, "Is that your final answer?" Because he desperately needs high enrollment into his program to make the numbers work. The paltry 13-cent savings is based on the assumption that nearly all seniors would be part of the plan. That way, so goes Gore's logic, the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) would purchase enough medicine to control the costs of drugs and keep premiums down. Otherwise, the cost of the plan would be astronomical.
For instance, Medicaid, the government program that provides health coverage to low-income Americans, spent more for prescription drugs than it did for doctor bills last year. Considering how rapidly the cost of doctors' bills has increased for Medicare Part B, without price controls the Gore plan is not viable.
Do seniors really want government setting price controls on drugs? One need not look any further than the effect of government price controls on other parts of Medicare for the answer. HFCA's medical price regulation has created mountains of paperwork for reimbursements and reduced the quality and quantity of medical services. According to Bruce M. Kelly of the Mayo Foundation, there are more than 110,000 pages of Medicare regulations currently on the books -- three times as many as the IRS code! With such an incomprehensible regulatory scheme it should be no surprise that in 1998 it took HCFA bureaucrats an average of 524 days to process appeals of Medicare Part B claims. If countless new pages of regulations are added by Gore's prescription drug plan, CBS should consider filming the next season of "Survivor" at HCFA headquarters.
Worse, HCFA's regulations have prevented countless seniors from receiving live-saving medical technologies such as colon cancer screening, bone-healing treatments and tests for brain tumors. Do seniors want these regulators controlling drugs for Alzheimer's, cancer, or Parkinson's disease?
What America's seniors truly need is a complete Medicare overhaul modeled on the same plan covering federal employees, including Vice President Gore and members of Congress. This type of reform would inject competition into the system and offer seniors a host of coverage options that include prescription drugs. In this way, seniors' prescription drug needs can be met and Medicare's long-term future can be secured.
Vice President Gore may think he has a winning issue, but America's seniors will lose if his plan is enacted.
-- Richard J. Killion is the state director of New Hampshire Citizens for a Sound Economy headquartered in Concord.