The Magazine

HIJACKING MEDICARE

May 31, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 35 • By ROBERT M. GOLDBERG
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Internal White House documents reveal how weak the Democrats' position on Medicare really is. One memo claims that because of the rising age of eligibility, millions of seniors would go without coverage. In reality, Breaux-Thomas would allow people under 67 to buy into Medicare, and other Republican proposals now before Congress would provide them a variety of health-care tax credits and deductions. What's more, Breaux-Thomas would actually reduce the amount of money most seniors spend on health insurance because it would relieve them of having to buy supplemental coverage, as many now do, for such items as prescription drugs.


True, there are other Democratic bills that would create a drug benefit for seniors. But they would authorize the government to decide what drugs seniors could receive, put price controls on new biotech products, create an open-ended entitlement funded by taxes, and impose higher out-of-pocket expenses on seniors. Another advantage of Breaux-Thomas, noted by Medicare commission member Deborah Steelman: It would provide a drug benefit without tapping the 15 percent of the Social Security surplus that the president, in his State of the Union message, said he intended to dedicate to that end.


The White House is expected to unveil its own Medicare reform plan sometime in June, and the word is it will contain drug benefits in the form of price controls. At bottom, though, neither Clinton and Gore nor congressional Democrats are interested in passing a drug benefit, much less overall Medicare reform, before the 2000 election. That is why Republicans should play offense. Pushing prescription-drug coverage as part of a sound Medicare reform would rob the Democrats of control over an issue that is crucial to their political fortunes. The sooner the GOP rallies around Breaux-Thomas, the sooner the Democratic effort to seduce seniors with phantom discounts will be defeated.




Robert M. Goldberg is senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.