- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 3, 2002

Last week, Congress took the first concrete steps in two years to provide seniors the right to choose a prescription drug plan under Medicare that is best for them. The Republican plan that passed on a bipartisan vote comes the closest to meeting the following challenges:
It must be strong enough to help seniors afford prescriptions but not so bloated that it bankrupts Medicare sooner.
It must target the poorest and sickest first while protecting the private drug plans that one-third of seniors rely upon.
It must successfully drive down drug prices through competition but not threaten future medical breakthroughs by discouraging research.
It must preserve the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship while ensuring physicians and hospitals can afford to treat Medicare patients.
All this amid a contentious election year where control of both chambers of Congress is at risk.
Here's how it works:
The Republican plan establishes a choice of guaranteed drug insurance plans under Medicare available to all seniors.
It is anchored by an across-the-board 30 percent savings in prescription prices using group buying power to lower costs.
The plan gives extra help to the poor by providing free prescription coverage for seniors who make less than $13,290 a year and couples making less than $17,910. Seniors in this category will receive at least $2,000 of free medicine a year, if needed.
For other seniors who choose coverage, the premiums are a reasonable $33 a month with an annual deductible of $250. The deductible encourages prevention, stretches resources and gives seniors a stake in managing their illness.
The plan covers 80 percent of the first $1,000 in medicine and 50 percent of the next $1,000. That will be welcome news for the average senior who consumes more than 18 prescriptions a year.
Because major and chronic illnesses can literally cost seniors everything, the plan provides catastrophic coverage for prescription costs above $3,700 a year. This means the plan, not the senior, will pay all medicine costs above that amount. This is real relief for many senior citizens, including one worried woman I met recently in my district who told me that her medicines cost a staggering $1,012 a month.
The Republican plan helps cover the cost of prescription drug costs for companies and local governments to encourage them to keep offering good health plans to retired workers. And the plan assists states with soaring Medicaid budgets by gradually assuming all state costs for providing Medicare's standard prescription benefits to Medicaid eligible populations.
Finally, to ensure seniors can visit a doctor they know, the bill sets aside $30 billion to increase reimbursements to hospitals, physicians, nurses, home health care agencies, rural health care providers and medical teaching hospitals.
Are there competing proposals? Yes. To be fair, the alternative plans offered by congressional Democrats are larger and naturally more attractive. Unfortunately, these proposals have tripled in size over just the past few months.
My worry is that while these alternatives appear more appealing today, the costs will explode in the future for baby boomers and our children. The version that Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, is pushing is so enormous that it actually bankrupts the entire Medicare system within 10 years of being put in place.
My worry is that by passing the Daschle proposal, Congress will overpromise, under deliver and pass down an impossible financial burden to future generations.
Americans are smart. They know that when something sounds too good to be true it probably is. They understand that their health concerns will be with them a long time. They need a prescription plan that will last as well.
I'm hopeful that Congress won't put off for long significant reform of the bureaucratic mess that Medicare has become. Nor should we avoid tackling the swelling prices of drugs themselves a complex issue that requires a careful balance of liability and patent reform, streamlining the approval process and granting the right for Americans to competitively buy safe, high-quality drugs from outside our borders.
The bottom line, though, is that the United States continues to enjoy the finest hospitals, the best-trained physicians and the latest technology in the world. Each day brings news of breathtaking medical discoveries that spawn life-changing technologies.
Now that the House has passed a plan that gives seniors access to these medical breakthroughs, it is time for Senate Democrats to pass a responsible plan as well, not the pie in the sky proposals that promise everything and deliver nothing.

Rep. Kevin Brady, Texas Republican, serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.

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