- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

AARP and its 35 million members are pleased that at long last we are on the threshold of meaningful Medicare prescription drug legislation. But, as the House and Senate conferees work to craft a final bill, it is important not to fall into another round of fruitless negotiations and gridlock. There is no excuse for not making it to the finish line this time. We are as determined as anyone to put progress and compromise over gridlock and failure, but there is a right way and a wrong way to get this job done.

First, we must keep our eyes on the prize. We have waited too long and worked too hard to see this process derailed by partisan bickering. Thankfully, hardly anyone is arguing anymore about the need for this addition to Medicare. Given the prominence of drug therapies in the practice of medicine in the 38 years since the creation of Medicare, if the program were being designed today, not including a prescription drug benefit would be as absurd as not covering doctor visits or hospital stays. Prescription drugs are keeping people healthier and out of hospitals and nursing homes. This trend will only accelerate when more people have access to the drugs they need at prices they can afford.

So, it is important to keep focused on the goal, even as we keep working to bridge our differences.

Our members understand that progress is being made. Both the Senate and the House bills provide a voluntary drug benefit and offer the same support for those in private plans or traditional Medicare. They also provide significant help for most low-income beneficiaries and those with the highest drug costs. These are big steps forward.

Our members also tell us they want to make sure the final bill does not undermine the coverage they have now. They do not oppose the addition of new private plan options to Medicare, but they believe that those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare should not be penalized.

They feel that everyone should be guaranteed access to coverage, everywhere in the country. They do not want to see Medicare’s fundamental contract as a social insurance program broken by limiting coverage based on income. They want to make sure that all low-income people are eligible for the Medicare drug benefit. No one should be put at risk by state budget shortages affecting Medicaid. And they want to make sure that retirees don’t lose the good employer-provided coverage they already have.

All of these concerns can be resolved. The proposed Medicare drug legislation is shaping up to be neither a panacea nor a placebo. But we believe that if it is done right, it can be medicine that helps not only older Americans, but also our ailing health care system. We need to keep Medicare affordable and sustainable, so it will be there for the generations to come. We urge Congress — both houses and both parties — to listen to AARP’s 35 million members. We want to work with you to fix the bills’ shortcomings in conference, so we can send improved final legislation to the president’s desk this year.

William D. Novelli is the executive director and CEO of AARP.

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