Taking A Courageous Stand On Drugs For Seniors

The Bridge Forum
A Periodic look at issues in the US presidential race

ALEXANDRIA, Va.–George W. Bush has taken a courageous, although politically risky, approach to providing a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.

He acknowledges Medicare is in dire need of modernization, but instead of tacking an expensive, bureaucratic new program onto this creaky one, Gov. Bush’s proposal would integrate a drug benefit into overall Medicare reform. Bush also acknowledges that some seniors need help right now with their drug costs. He would provide federal subsidies next year to help lower-income seniors through a system of state programs that can more efficiently target and administer the benefits.

Finally, his Medicare reform plan would assure all seniors they would be protected against medical costs, including prescription drugs, that exceed $6,000 a year.

This is a uniquely American cure that can be implemented without crippling drug research or robbing seniors of choice and the benefits of a competitive marketplace.

This is opposed to the approach taken by Vice President Al Gore, which would add an expensive drug benefit to the existing Medicare program. Far from advancing reform, this move would halt reform in its tracks. And seniors would suffer.

Although Gore says otherwise, Medicare inevitably would control the availability of drugs just as it now controls when, where and how seniors can obtain other health-care services.

Medicare managers soon would develop complex lists of permitted drugs and eventually impose limits on how much it would pay for them. This would wind up hurting the very research that provides the drugs seniors are so desperate to get.

Bush recognizes the pharmaceutical industry must be free to conduct research without constraints of price controls and restrictive government formularies.

The army of men and women devoting their lives to medical research must be free to continue the war on cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other life-threatening illnesses without political intervention.

This sharp difference of vision matters. Forbes magazine recently reported on new research in cancer biology that would trigger the switch inside cancer cells that tells them to die. This revolutionary research could support and even replace radiation, chemotherapy and surgery, and make them seem as barbaric tomorrow as blood leeching does to us today.

But these breakthroughs won’t come if the pharmaceutical industry’s $26 billion in annual research investment is choked off by Gore’s poorly conceived prescription drug benefit.

France provides a chilling example: It strictly regulates both manufactures’ prices and retail margins. It’s no coincidence that of the all the drugs developed globally between 1975 and 1994, France is at the bottom of the list with 3 percent of the total. By contrast, the United States, with its free market system, produced 45 percent of new drugs.

If we want ensure that the potential medical miracles of this century are indeed discovered, the private research industry needs to be supported, not attacked, by government.

Medical miracles come through hard work, risk and protection of intellectual property. Bush’s policy initiatives look to the future with a vision of these extraordinary possibilities.

GRACE-MARIE ARNETT is president of The Galen Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based research organization that focuses on free-market health reform. Readers may e-mail her at galen@galen.org. Her views are not necessarily those of BridgeNews, whose ventures include the Internet site www.bridge.com.

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