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July 10, 2003

You Can Be Above the Law, If You Write It

By and

Both houses of Congress recently passed separate Medicare "reform" bills designed to provide prescription drugs to all seniors.

 

But if the bills are so good for the rest of us, why are lawmakers desperately trying to exempt federal retirees, including retired members of Congress?

 

The House recently passed a bill (H.R. 2631) that will guarantee the prescription-drug benefits federal retirees get from their private health plans -- inoculating former federal employees against the impact of the Medicare prescription-drug bill Congress just enacted for the rest of America.

 

Under the bill, every federal retiree can rest assured that his drug benefit will be at least as valuable as the ones that active federal employees have available to them now -- ones these employees get to choose from a variety of competing private health plans. According to The New York Times, federal employees now get drug benefits worth about 50 percent more than those contained in the Medicare bills recently passed by the Congress.

 

Millions of retired Americans with drug coverage from private employers won't be so lucky. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that if either version of the congressional Medicare bills becomes law, roughly one out of every three private-sector retirees would lose the drug coverage their former employer now provides and would be dumped into the new government drug benefit.

 

Millions of seniors would lose the private coverage they've known and trusted most of their adult lives and be forced into a government-run program that offers significantly poorer benefits with higher out-of-pocket costs.

 

Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., the sponsor of the House bill, told Congress Daily AM this special exemption for federal retirees was necessary because the government must have "the right incentives to attract and retain the best and the brightest." This reasoning obviously does not apply to those of us in the private sector. Likewise, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, a sponsor of a similar Senate bill, recently told the Times that current and future federal retirees "should not face a situation in which they must rely on Medicare."

 

It figures. Lawmakers finally decide to look at the unpleasant effects of the Medicare legislation they passed -- then they pass a separate law to exempt themselves and federal workers. When you are enrolled in a superior program like the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), the last thing you want is to be stuck with an inferior Medicare product.

 

Labor unions know the new Medicare prescription-drug bills are a bad deal for retirees with good private drug coverage. Now, Congress is desperate to avoid having the government dump federal and congressional retirees into the Medicare drug program. That's the canary in the coal mine for all seniors about to encounter the "unintended consequences" of the politically irresistible Medicare drug bills.

 

Curiously, the Senate Medicare drug bill actually had an amendment added to it by a vote of 93-3 that would have cut the drug benefit for members of Congress down to the level provided to seniors on Medicare. Fear not for your elected officials, however. Roll Call newspaper reported the very next day that members voted for the amendment "with the understanding that it would not show up in the final version of the legislation."

 

It's still not too late for Congress to help needy Medicare recipients and fix the badly broken Medicare program in a way that would not cost so many so much.

 

In his State of the Union address, President Bush called for Medicare to be reformed along the lines of the system Congress is now scrambling desperately to preserve for itself: the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program. Under the FEHBP, federal enrollees can choose from among a dozen to two dozen competing health plans every year, all of which have drug coverage integrated into their health plans. Federal workers and retirees are free to switch plans each year if their chosen plan doesn't fit their needs.

 

Serious reforms based upon this popular program would provide seniors with real options and a prescription-drug benefit suited to their personal needs. Members of Congress should go back to the drawing board and draft real Medicare reform, not just add a costly but inferior Medicare drug benefit that they don't even want for themselves when they retire.

 

Robert Moffit is director of the Center for Health Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, where Derek Hunter is a researcher.

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire

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