July 12, 2000: Column on Prescription Drug Coverage for Seniors

Talking It Over

Hillary Rodham Clinton

July 12, 2000

Last month, the President announced that, at $211 billion, our budget surplus this year will be the largest in history. Over the next 10 years, the surplus -- after protecting Medicare and Social Security -- will reach almost $1.5 trillion, exceeding even our own projections of just four months ago.

Our booming economy did not occur by accident or coincidence. Rather, it came about because we maintained much-needed fiscal discipline, while expanding trade and investments in our people and our future. If we are to continue to enjoy these good times, we must not abandon the path that brought us to this place. We must instead identify and invest in our most pressing priorities. Among these priorities is providing affordable and dependable medical care to the elderly and disabled -- just what, 35 years ago, the Medicare system was created to do. But over the course of these last three decades, the face of medicine has changed, nowhere more than in the use and availability of prescription drugs.

Last February, in the budget the President presented to Congress, he proposed a long-overdue, voluntary prescription drug benefit that would offer medicines to seniors at affordable prices. Last month, in the wake of the record economic numbers and a new study that showed a 10 percent increase in the cost of prescription drugs over the past year alone, the President strengthened his proposal. Meanwhile, Republican House members, just waking up to the importance of this issue to the American people, offered their own package -- a private insurance plan that even the private insurers refuse to support.

Under the President's plan, all beneficiaries would be guaranteed a defined, accessible, stable benefit for the same premium -- no matter where they live. Medicare would subsidize beneficiaries directly and pay for prescription drug costs the way it pays for any other benefit. For a monthly premium of $25, seniors would enjoy a zero deductible, a 50 percent discount on the cost of their medicines, and a guarantee that annual out-of-pocket costs would not exceed $4,000. In addition, all medically necessary drugs and access to local pharmacies would be ensured, giving seniors the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they can get the treatments they need where and when they need them.

In contrast, under the Republican plan, private insurers would determine deductibles, copays and benefit limits, with room to manipulate the system in ways that could leave the oldest and most disabled essentially uncovered. Moreover, private plans could limit access to pharmacists and needed medications. Although premiums and benefits would vary from plan to plan, sponsors estimate the average premium at $37 per month, over 40 percent higher than the President's. The President recognizes that providing a voluntary prescription drug benefit is only one of the challenges that he must face if the Medicare system is to remain healthy for generations to come. Accordingly, his plan would also increase payments to hospitals, teaching facilities, home health care agencies, and other providers. And it would include the Vice President's proposal to take Medicare off-budget, so that, like Social Security, the taxes citizens pay for Medicare could never be diverted for tax cuts or other government spending. We're fortunate to live in a time of historic prosperity, but as long as three out of five seniors lack the dependable drug coverage they need, we have not lived up to our responsibility as a nation.

Just days before the House leadership refused even to allow a vote on the President's plan, offering instead what amounted to nothing more than an empty promise, scientists announced one of the most important scientific breakthroughs of our generation -- the decoding of the human genome. This monumental achievement is bound to lead to the availability of new life-saving treatments and medicines for many of our most dreaded diseases. How ironic that, if the Republican plan prevails, many seniors and people with disabilities won't be able to afford them.

As the President said shortly before the House vote last week, "The bottom line is this. (The Republican) plan is designed to benefit the companies who make the prescription drugs, not the older Americans who need to take them. It puts special interest above the public interest." Hard as it is to believe, there are fewer than 35 days left in the legislative year, and time is running out if this Congress is to meet its obligations to its constituents. It's time to make tough choices. It's time to listen and to trust the American people to know what they want, what's important, and what's right. It's time to pay down the national debt, strengthen Medicare, and provide a dependable, affordable prescription drug benefit to America's senior citizens.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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