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    A Times Editorial

    Covering drugs and the future

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    After years of empty promises, Congress has rolled out two Medicare prescription plans, one from House Republicans and the other from Democratic Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia. The Democratic plan provides for retirees' real needs, while the Republican proposal contains a gap in coverage that would fall short of protecting many beneficiaries. Neither party, however, has come up with a plan to put Medicare on a strong financial footing, and any expanded coverage will move up the day of reckoning.

    The Republican plan has the backing of powerful lawmakers including House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. It would cost retirees $35 to $40 per month and carry a $250 deductible. After that, it would pay a percentage of drug costs up to about $2,000, then recipients would be on their own until they had spent $5,000 in a year, when Medicare would pick up the remaining costs.

    The Graham-Miller plan has a lower premium, $25 per month, and no deducible. There are no gaps in coverage, with Medicare paying a percentage of all prescription costs up to $4,000 a year, after which the government would cover all expenses. The AARP quickly endorsed the measure. It's no surprise that the Democratic plan costs more, an estimated $400-billion to $500-billion over 10 years, compared with $350-billion for the Republican plan. Both are much more generous than the $190-billion President Bush has put in his budget for prescription drugs.

    Congress may not have the political will to pass one of the plans before its members leave town, many to face re-election. But it would be the responsible thing to do. The increased use and rising prices of prescription drugs have forced too many retirees to choose between treating their medical conditions and paying for other basic needs. That is shameful.

    Besides, if Congress and the Bush administration can give farmers $180-billion in subsidies, most of it going to giant agribusinesses, and pass a $1.35-trillion tax cut that mostly favors the wealthiest Americans, they can help retirees with their drug costs.

    Admittedly, an expensive prescription drug program will only hasten the day Congress has to deal with Medicare's underlying problems. Currently, Medicare costs amount to a little more than 2 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. But with more Americans reaching retirement age and medical expenses rising faster than the overall rate of inflation, the program will grow to 5 percent of GDP in 35 years and 8 percent in 75 years, according to Newhouse News Service.

    Medicare has served elderly Americans well. Keeping it afloat is likely to become one of the federal government's greatest challenges, even more urgent than a fix for Social Security. Once a prescription drug benefit is given to elderly Americans, it will be difficult to take back. So as Congress moves forward with the debate over which plan best serves beneficiaries, it should also begin to address the need for overall reform of the program. As Congress helps today's Medicare recipients with their prescription drug costs, it should also think of future generations, who will have to pay the bill. Congress should not ignore either responsibility.

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