Political Paradox of Medicare Law

By Rosenblatt, Robert A. | Aging Today, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview

Political Paradox of Medicare Law


Rosenblatt, Robert A., Aging Today


Let us consider the paradoxes of politics. Sometimes what we think we know just isn't so: Democrats like big government, right? They enjoy creating new programs and love to tell voters about them. So one would think Democrats should be happy with the new Medicare law, which provides coverage for prescription drugs for the first time since the program was created in 1965.

Full benefits don't start until 2006, but for this year and next, there is a transitional program. Besides the much-discussed discount cards, the law offers $600 a year in free prescriptions for low-income people on Medicare, which is available for people with incomes below 135% of the federal poverty line. The standard for 2004 is an annual income of $12,123 for a single person and $16,362 for a married couple. Instead of promoting the benefit, though, Democrats are taking every opportunity to trash the bill, calling it a sellout to Big Pharma (the drug industry) und Big Insurers (health maintenance organizations).

Democrats are angry because the bill was passed by a Republican-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate and signed by Republican President George W. Bush. The bill grabbed an issue always regarded by the Democrats as their very own. Their anger, voiced at every opportunity in speeches and media interviews, on Internet websites, at town hall meetings and during campaign stops, has effectively stripped away any advantage from the President and his party. Polls show that older voters are confused and skeptical about the legislation

Here is an example of the Democratic rhetoric: "There are three reasons I voted against this bill: It moves to privatize Medicare, it does nothing to rein in the skyrocketing prices of prescription drugs and it will make many Wisconsinites worse off than they are now," said Sen. RUSS Feingold, D-Wisc. he continued, "I want a prescription drug benefit for our seniors. They need it and they deserve it, but this bill would do too much harm to the entire Medicare program while providing a weak prescription drug benefit to our seniors." Feingold said he is going to introduce a measure to repeal the Medicare law and replace it with a version he says will be more helpful to older Americans. But for him to succeed, the Democrats would need to recapture the White House, the House and the Senate.

Older people have become sufficiently skeptical of the prescription drug benefit that many of them are staying on the sidelines, refusing to sign up for the discount card that could be worth $1,200 to the poorest of them during the next two years. The government estimates that 7 million people are eligible for the free medications and has expectations that more than 4 million will take advantage of the opportunity. So far, it seems highly doubtful this goal will be reached.

NO CREDIT FOR REPUBLICANS

As for the Republicans, they aren't very happy either. They are reaping no credit among the voters, especially the older voters, for giving them a new Medicare benefit. Also, the conservative Republicans who don't like big government are still angry with President Bush for the aggressive arm-twisting that forced the small-government enthusiasts to reverse their votes and cast a ballot needed to pass the bill last year. The final vote on the House floor was delayed for hours while Administration officials hammered at the handful of holdouts to change their votes.

Furthermore, the White House kept secret an estimate from Medicare's chief number-cruncher suggesting the tab for the next decade would be $534 billion, rather than the $400 billion estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. …

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