- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

Politicians in Washington and on the campaign trail are talking more and more about providing seniors access to affordable prescription drug coverage. And while conventional wisdom suggests we cannot pass comprehensive Medicare reform this year, we do believe an agreement that balances outpatient prescription drug coverage with incremental reforms is still possible.

The growing public support for a prescription drug benefit gives us a real opportunity to make Medicare better with passage this year of bipartisan legislation. Seniors need prescription drug benefits.

But adding prescription drugs without fixing the underlying program will only exacerbate Medicare's financial and administrative problems. It will also remove what little political will currently exists to tackle the much more pressing need to reform the system. Medicare must be modernized and put on a sound financial footing to guarantee that seniors have access to affordable drugs as an integral part of their health care plan, now and well into the future.

Although a recent report by the Medicare trustees suggests Medicare Part A will stay solvent until the year 2023, we must be cautious in relying on these estimates. As recently as five years ago, the Medicare Trust Fund was expected to be bankrupt in 2002. Since then the Medicare Trustees have reported insolvency dates over a range of 21 years, highlighting how estimates can vary from year to year.

Few understand that the Medicare Trust Fund has been in a cash deficit since 1992, taking in less revenue than needed to pay all Medicare expenses each year. It was not until a little over a year ago that surpluses were realized, a direct result of billions of dollars in cuts to Medicare providers. These cuts were twice what Congress intended when the Balanced Budget Act was passed in 1997. And we cannot and should not rely on cutting more funding to providers to sustain Medicare.

The Congressional Budget Office predicts Medicare will grow at an average annual rate of 7.1 percent over the next 10 years. Over the past five years, Medicare Part B has grown at a rate of 38 percent. Given these projections and the huge demographic shift of 77 million baby boomers into Medicare beginning in 2010, we cannot afford to ignore the financial challenges that face Medicare today. Even the Medicare Trustees acknowledge that future operations of the Medicare Trust Fund will be very sensitive to future economic, demographic and health cost trends. The need to fix the underlying Medicare program is clear.

Medicare's benefits and delivery system are frozen in the 1960s and cannot keep up with the growing demand for new treatments and technologies. Today more than one-third of all seniors must pay for their medications out-of-pocket or worse, go without essential medicines.

Medicare also is a program that only pays 53 percent of total medical expenses of seniors. Beneficiaries must find other ways to pay the remaining 47 percent of their health care costs. It is clear that the time has come to modernize Medicare for the 21st century.

That is why we introduced bipartisan legislation (S. 1895) last year that lets Medicare beneficiaries select from a range of both government-sponsored and private health plans offering comprehensive benefits and prescription drugs, much more than Medicare provides today.

Today the Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hold its 15th and final hearing of this session on Medicare reform. It's time we push forward and mark up a bipartisan bill that takes the first steps toward needed structural changes to the program as well as outpatient prescription drug coverage for beneficiaries.

We recognize it will be difficult to pass comprehensive Medicare reform this year. This is not an easy task. But we believe our legislation can be enacted because it balances adding prescription drugs with securing Medicare's long-term financial health.

It is tempting to avoid the difficult decisions to modernize Medicare. But we urge our Senate colleagues to move forward with the right and responsible approach to ensure Medicare is there for future generations.

Sens. John Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, and Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, are co-sponsors of the Medicare Preservation and Improvement Act.

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