Conservatives Can Defeat Drug Bill

My father is an 85-year-old Army veteran of World War II. He served in Iceland, Normandy and Belgium. Although Dad is in great shape for someone his age, like many members of “the Greatest Generation” he has his share of health problems. He takes prescription drugs to control diabetes and glaucoma, as well as pills for several of the other maladies common to advancing age.

Under both the Senate and House versions of the Medicare prescription drug bill that is currently being negotiated into final form in a House-Senate conference committee, my father would become one of approximately 4.8 million Americans who would lose their Medicare supplemental (Medigap) insurance plans. He would join the 4 million other seniors who, according to the Congressional Budget Office, would lose their employer-sponsored insurance drug coverage. Millions more would see their out-of-pocket drug expenses skyrocket under the current House-Senate plans.

Kennedy’s Sniff Test

As more and more senior Americans look more closely at the proposals under consideration in Congress, the realization is slowly, if belatedly, dawning that millions will be worse off, will pay more, and will have fewer choices than they do under the current system. It also is becoming obvious that the mind-boggling $2-trillion price tag (between now and 2030, according to the Heritage Foundation) on the proposed entitlement would be unsustainable, would lead inevitably to huge tax increases, an enormous intergenerational transfer of wealth, health-care rationing, and price controls. This realization is turning into a potent and growing political force.

Politicians pay particular attention to seniors. Older Americans vote in huge numbers, are more engaged politically, contribute disproportionately to campaigns, and generally can make life miserable for those politicians who fail to heed their elderly constituents.

Until now it has been assumed that the elderly uniformly were demanding a universal prescription drug benefit. Conservatives were told that the Entitlement Express to a universal drug benefit had left the station. President Bush wants a bill and is not overly concerned with even significant petty details. In fact, the White House has signaled the President would sign just about anything that passed the sniff test of Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.). With the White House leaning hard on congressional Republicans, and White House political director Karl Rove telling balky conservatives that President Bush “needs” a prescription drug benefit to enhance his reelection prospects, it looked like conservatives were about to get steamrolled-again.

Not so fast. The Entitlement Express may not be an unstoppable juggernaut after all. A couple dozen House conservatives recently signed a letter hinting rather strongly that unless the bill coming out of conference contains hefty doses of Medicare reform, competition, and medical savings accounts-the principles President Bush himself laid down-they would be disinclined to vote for a $400 billion annual expansion of the Great Society welfare state that has Ted Kennedy’s fingerprints all over it.

Call Your Congressman

Seniors, it turns out, want both change and choice. A poll taken in July by Andres-McKenna Research found that seniors want Medicare reform even more than they want a new drug benefit. Only 17% of seniors said a new drug benefit should be passed in the absence of Medicare reform. A whopping 71% said the system should be reformed as part of any new prescription drug benefit. Despite the posturing of some senior advocacy organizations, senior citizens are not demanding a new drug benefit no matter what the cost. They want Medicare reform first.

Clearly, the Entitlement Express might yet run off the track. Conservatives can derail this runaway expansion of the Great Society’s welfare state. Congress is setting itself up for a replay of the 1988 debacle over the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act. Congress, which was then controlled by Democrats, thought it had solved a health care coverage problem with a widely acclaimed bipartisan bill. Seniors soon discovered, however, that the new benefit was enormously expensive. The next year, a popular uprising forced Congress to repeal the hugely unpopular benefit.

The emerging coalition of conservatives and seniors can stop the current bipartisan mischief on prescription drugs. Seniors are awakening to the truth about the negative effects of what is being contemplated by the House-Senate conference. Republican leaders, however, need to hear from Americans who oppose this new entitlement that will increase the burden of government on all taxpayers and end up forcing seniors to pay more for their prescription drugs, while losing existing benefits, and choices. Just as a coalition of aroused seniors and conservatives forced Congress to repeal the Medicare Catastrophic catastrophe, so can this latest version of the Entitlement Express be derailed.