As the House and Senate return from the August recess, a broad coalition of conservative organizations is mustering its forces to do battle against the new Medicare prescription drug entitlement that with the support of the Bush Administration was moving through the Republican Congress when members left town.
Representatives from several national and state conservative groups, banded together as the “Coalition Against Higher Medicare Drug Costs,” appeared at the National Press Club last Tuesday and promised a strong lobbying effort against the entitlement, which would pay for prescription drugs for seniors of all incomes. Congress has estimated that the entitlement will cost about $435 billion over the next ten years-but that is before the bulk of the Baby Boom generation begins to retire, a demographic reality certain to balloon the cost of the program.
“Conceivably, the Medicare bill that is now before a House-Senate conference is going to be the most important piece of legislation in this century,” said Robert Moffett, a health care expert at the Heritage Foundation.
The entitlement passed both houses of Congress in late June, but in very different forms. The House version of the bill, which contains basic reforms to Medicare such as private competition among plans and health savings accounts, must now be reconciled with its more liberal and costlier Senate counterpart.
Moffett voiced fears that either bill would dramatically expand government health care costs, exacerbating the already-unsound financial position of Medicare.
“Both the House and Senate bills create huge unfunded liabilities for current and future taxpayers,” he said. “Neither bill has any provisions to cap these unfunded liabilities.” Considering that the Social Security and Medicare systems already face future bankruptcy based on the dwindling ratio of taxpaying workers to retired beneficiaries, the new spending envisioned by the drug entitlement is certain to increase political pressure in the future for increases in federal payroll or income taxes.
Moffett argued that millions of senior citizens stand to lose their employer-based coverage or have it scaled back if the new entitlement is created. Others may give up private coverage and enter the federal program.
According to a Zogby poll released June 23, 66% of Americans fear that “a government-provided prescription drug benefit might mean that some people could lose their private health care coverage and become more dependent on government funding.” In the same survey, pollsters described the Senate bill and asked older respondents if it would be better than the coverage they have now. Seventy-four per cent said no, while 16% said it would be better.
According to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, 78% of senior citizens already have prescription drug coverage.
The American Conservative Unions Donald Devine, who serves as the coalitions chairman, compared the new drug bill to the infamous universal health care plan proposed by former first lady Hillary Clinton in 1993.
“For the majority of us in the coalition, the job is to try to do what we did before, during the fight over Hillary-Care, which is to inform the country of what the problem is,” he said. “Hillary Clinton was asked after she had to withdraw her health care reform program what defeated it. She said it was the right-wing groups with all their mail and their town meetings.”
On August 26, the coalition sent a letter to the legislators currently hashing out the final version of the entitlement in the conference committee. Signed by 25 conservative leaders, the letter essentially asks conferees not to provide a new universal entitlement. Although that letter contained no positive policy proposals, Bob Carlson of the National Tax Limitation Committee-who ran Californias welfare program under Gov. Ronald Reagan-said that the Medicaid welfare program could cover truly indigent seniors. “We can do that without any significant increase in Medicaid costs,” said Carlson.
Earlier this year many observers believed that the backing of both President Bush and the Republican congressional leadership made enactment of the drug bill virtually inevitable. But the Zogby poll, the fact that the bill passed the House by only one vote, the slow pace of negotiations in the conference committee, and the increasing and widespread opposition from conservative organizations and activists, have boosted conservative hopes of killing the bill.
The conference committee will have a hard time finding a compromise acceptable to all parties. When the House version passed, 212 to 211, 19 conservatives and almost all Democrats voted to kill it. That was after much arm-twisting by the White House, which caused at least three members to change their votes at the last minute.