The Right Rx
Congress shouldn't rush into a bad Medicare plan.


Deroy Murdock

Congress should step on the brakes and take its time before voting on the most gargantuan federal benefit since Medicare was born in 1965.

Apparently violating its word to its members, the House GOP leadership is expected to call the “yeas” and “nays” Friday evening on the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. Members of both houses, and the American public, deserve adequate time to review and consider this bill’s 681 pages of complex, detailed minutiae. Instead, congressional leaders seem intent to slam this measure through the House and Senate before anyone can look too closely at this legislation.

Rep. John Kline (R., Minn.) and 40 other House members wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, and Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri–all Republicans–on October 29 to ask for at last three legislative days to comb through any final Medicare language.

“Rank and file lawmakers have been promised three days to review a conference report,” Congress Daily reported last week. Nonetheless, House leaders seem poised to call a vote barely one day after members saw a package that stretches to one and a third reams of paper per copy.

Of course, congressional leaders must worry that this bill’s prospects will wane the longer legislators and taxpayers examine it. The arguments against this legislation are even stronger than they were before conferees adopted compromise language at about 1:30 P.M. Thursday.

This is an overdose of big government. According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, only 22 percent of seniors lack drug coverage. The other 78 percent already have their prescription-drug bills subsidized through private plans, Medicaid, and other means. Rather than do something specifically for the poor and uninsured, this reputedly Republican Congress decided to qualify all Medicare beneficiaries, including the wealthy and those who already have coverage.

“A small, targeted prescription-drug benefit aimed at the small number of low-income seniors with high drug costs might have made sense,” said Cato Institute scholar Michael Tanner. “But there is no need for the biggest new entitlement program since the Great Society.”

This measure is way too pricey. While President Clinton proposed a $160 billion drug plan in 2000, the Congressional Budget Office yesterday calculated this GOP bill’s ten-year cost to taxpayers at $409.8 billion. The program, naturally, will continue after that, vacuuming cash from the Treasury. According to Brian M. Riedl and William M. Beach of the Heritage Foundation, this bill will cost $2 trillion through 2030, atop Medicare’s burgeoning, unfunded expenses. Those outlays already will balloon as the baby boomers boost the number of beneficiaries from 40 million to 70 million.

“A 40-year-old head of household in 2003 could expect his or her family to pay $16,127 in extra taxes until retirement to pay for other people’s drug benefit before paying for his or her own drug coverage,” Riedl and Beach concluded. By 2030, they also forecast, each U.S. household will pay at least $1,125 in new taxes annually to finance this drug scheme.

Democrats and the senior lobby will try to make this entitlement even bigger. “What the AARP is for is more,” says Ed Haislmaier, a board member of the National Center for Public Policy Research. In TV ads, the American Association Of Retired Persons says that this bill is “not perfect,” but embraces it as “a good first step.” Translation: The AARP, other seniors groups and the rest of the Left will clamor for increased spending on Medicare’s new drug feature. If Republicans refuse to go along, they predictably will be blamed for trying to snatch granny’s pharmaceuticals and, naturally, kill her.

Free-marketeers on Capitol Hill had hoped that by 2007, Medicare would compete on price with private plans. That ambitious objective now has shrunk to something between embarrassing and laughable. Now delayed until 2010, “competition” will be limited to “demonstration projects” in no more than six cities. Even worse, these experiments would end in just three years. What company will want to invest money, time and management talent in an effort that so quickly expires?

Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) told the Wall Street Journal that demonstration projects are “the elephant graveyard of good ideas in Washington.” Cynically, AARP chief William Novelli said of the faux competition, “It’s a fig leaf.” Evidently, Republican lawmakers can be fooled even more easily than previously thought.

Seniors don’t want this measure. A recent AFL-CIO survey found that only 18 percent of AARP members favor this bill’s passage. When pollsters for the Club for Growth told seniors that the CBO estimates between 32 and 37 percent of Medicare recipients could lose their private drug coverage thanks to this legislation, 77 percent voiced their opposition. Also, 81 percent of seniors in that study said they were happy with the coverage they have today.

This Medicare drug package is too big, too complex, too expensive, and too unpopular to merit passage. Congressional leaders should give their members and American taxpayers ample time to debate this measure. Then, senators and representatives should do the right thing and kill it.

Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.