Discount drugs: Not in the cards?
There wasn't much to cheer about when Congress passed an expensive
and inefficient Medicare "reform" measure last year. But the law
did have a few useful elements, one of them the drug-discount
Unfortunately, many advocates who claim to speak for seniors are
now trashing the drug-card program, which could cut poor seniors'
drug costs by up to 60 percent.
First, some key facts:
- The discount cards are accepting enrollees and take effect this
month ( June.)
- They are available to all Medicare enrollees who lack
- They will offer significant help to seniors who need it most.
They are expected to give those seniors who choose to sign up an
average discount of 17.4 percent of retail prescription-drug costs,
according to a recent study published in the prestigious health
policy journal Health Affairs.
- The program also provides low-income seniors a $600 subsidy to
help with drug costs. Seniors without drug coverage are expected to
spend, on average, $1,400 for drugs this year, so the drug-card
program could reduce poor seniors' average out-of-pocket expenses
by 60 percent.
It all adds up to a pretty good deal, especially for the more than
4 million low-income seniors (those whose incomes do not exceed
$12,569 for an individual or $16,862 for a couple) expected to sign
up for the cards. But to hear some politicians tell it, the cards
will simply confuse seniors.
On the floor of the House of Representatives, for example, Rep.
Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat, said, "[Seniors] are probably
going to spend so much time trying to manipulate or make it through
the process that they are not going to be able to benefit from this
at all." Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, California Democrat, told the
New York Times, "The cards provide maximum confusion and minimal
Speak for yourself, Mr. Stark. For most seniors, 60 percent is not
"minimal savings." And even if the savings were "just" 17.4
percent, that's still a start. Something is better than
Admittedly, starting up a big new program is complicated. There are
39 national and 33 regional card plans to choose from. But that's a
good thing. Having lots of choices will give seniors a chance to
shop and compare prices. If seniors are able to get discounts on
travel, hotels, restaurants, etc., they're capable of getting one
of these discounts on prescription drugs. Seniors are savvy
And members of the "Greatest Generation," defeaters of fascism and
communism, are surely capable of deciding what's in their best
interest, especially since the government has made it easy. Seniors
with Internet access can go to www.medicare.gov and find out how
much their prescriptions will cost under various plans. (This is
also the first instance of transparency in the pharmaceutical
market and will help bring down prices through competition.) Those
without computers can call 1-800-MEDICARE to get the same
But here's where partisan politics come in. In the Roll Call
newspaper, Morton Kondracke reports, "House Minority Leader Nancy
Pelosi, California Democrat, and others, as part of a general
effort to discredit the Medicare law, are urging seniors not to
acquire [discount cards]." Forget not judging a book by its cover.
This is judging a book before the cover is designed.
Beyond partisan politics, the card's opponents have another reason
for wanting these cards to fail. If these cards drive down prices
through competition and save seniors billions of dollars over the
next two years, it would show real competition and patient-directed
choice work in medicine.
That would shatter the myth that a government-run monopoly is the
only way seniors can get quality, affordable health care.
As the start date for the Medicare drug discount cards arrives,
expect to hear even more horror stories about poor seniors who are
"too confused" to comparison shop and get discounts. It would be a
shame if these scare tactics kept needy seniors from signing up for
a new program that will give them real help.
Liberals and conservatives agree there are many problems with last
year's Medicare "reform" law, and no organization criticized the
creation of a new, costly entitlement more than the Heritage
We still do. There's plenty that needs to be fixed.
But some good health policies came out of it, and one is the drug
discount program. Let's give seniors a chance to get the
prescriptions they need - and save some money in the process.
There's nothing confusing about that.
Derek Hunter is a researcher in the Center for Health Policy
Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times