President Bush has boldly stepped up to the plate by calling for Medicare modernization as part of his prescription drug benefit plan, and thereby has set the stage for an historic debate that White House officials acknowledge can either help or hurt his presidency in a big way.
Unfortunately, the White House team has not backed up their star hitter by providing details of the plan, and this has opened the door for critics to begin their attacks.
That explains why Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was on the defensive last week [Feb. 6] when he testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, unable to provide any details of the president’s plan. Democrats attacked him saying this shows Medicare is “a low priority for the president.”
While details are sketchy, the president has said he wants to allow Medicare beneficiaries either to stay with the current Medicare program or choose from among private health plans. These plans would be competing for seniors’ business and offering drug coverage as an integral part of their health benefit – plans just like members of Congress and the president’s staff have today.
The president favors using the drug benefit as a lure to encourage Congress to give seniors the kind of health plan that federal officials already have. That new form of coverage would mirror the best health care plan in the country – the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
To prove that he is serious about providing generous and comprehensive coverage to seniors, Mr. Bush put an additional $400 billion on the table to fund his new program.
Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Bush is not ducking the crucial need to bring Medicare into the era of modern medicine.
His challenge will be to convince Congress to take this new road of modernization and not go down the tired and beaten path of more price controls, restrictions on access, and heavy-handed regulation that burden the program today.
Action is imperative. Medicare is gobbling up a bigger and bigger share of taxpayer dollars. Unless something is done, future generations of taxpayers will have to shoulder a crushing financial burden. And for all that spending, Medicare patients will find their access to health services severely limited.
The public is increasingly aware of these problems. A recent Wall Street Journal – Harris poll found that 64 percent of Americans believe Medicare needs major reform.
Those most worried are those under age 64: 71 percent of them don’t believe that Medicare will be able to meet their health care needs.
But reality never stopped partisan bickering.
“The president’s proposal is an effort to say if seniors want to have help with their prescription drug costs, they would have to lose their choice of doctor and go into a private-sector HMO,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) complained recently.
That’s not true – seniors could get drug coverage, keep the doctor of their choice, and not be forced into an HMO – but that doesn’t stop the politically charged criticism of the president’s new plan.
The battle lines are clearly drawn: Many of those on the left favor simply adding a drug benefit to the existing Medicare program – a benefit that would quickly be encumbered by price controls and delays or restrictions on access to new drugs with government officials making choices rather than doctors or patients.
The White House team needs to get its act together. President Bush’s Medicare proposal has the potential to offer Americans real choices, not false promises, but it’s vital that he announce the details of his plan quickly.
As the fierce debate unfolds, he must stick to his promise to put patients and doctors back in charge of American medicine and reform Medicare in way that preserves a free and competitive market for health care.
Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute. Joseph Antos is the Wilson H. Taylor Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Ms. Turner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and Dr. Antos can be reached at email@example.com.