Congress Passes the Gravy

Medicare drug bill is a turkey that benefits pharmaceutical companies more than seniors

With the passage of last week’s Medicare bill, the Republican party has produced a political monstrosity that can only be described as a “gravy-train-wreck”: a bonanza for the politically-influential pharmaceutical industry and a boondoggle for the nation’s taxpayers. Bush and his allies on the Hill, with an eye to the 2004 election, are clearly hoping the $400 billion prescription-drug benefit will woo elderly voters, but the bill is of dubious value to senior citizens, and a fiscal timebomb for younger generations of Americans.

One provision of the bill prohibits the government from negotiating discounted drug prices, as insurance companies, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Canada and many other countries do. Such a pharma-friendly measure comes as little surprise, given the sway of the industry’s lobbyists in Washington, but the payoff to contributors comes at the expense of seniors, who will continue to be stuck with high prices, even with government support. More than six million seniors will also lose their Medicaid drug coverage and will face the prospect of being stuck with higher co-payments or losing access to certain drugs that Medicare does not cover, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Universal health care is a tremendously worthwhile goal, and prescription drug benefits are a step in that direction, but by threatening to make medicine less affordable, this bill is a dangerous misstep.

In addition to its internal flaws, the new legislation could wreak external havoc by undermining the federal government’s already floundering fiscal solvency. With no provisions in the bill to raise any new revenue to pay for this very substantial new expenditure, Congress has effectively mortgaged the future livelihoods of today’s young people. By avoiding responsibility now, the Republicans have ensured that huge tax increases will eventually be necessary to pay the debts the president said he would not pass on “to other Congresses, to other presidents and other generations.”

The Medicare bill looks like a gift on the surface, but it is actually a Trojan horse, with a bellyful of woe for young and old alike. No doubt Bush is banking that this largesse will furnish him with a kinder, gentler image just in time for the 2004 election. But in fact, he’s up to his usual tricks: rewarding his contributors and scoring political points while obscuring the long-run costs of his latest debacle.