- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

Opponents of President Bush's effort to reform Medicare have a simple plan of attack: Scare America's seniors.
We saw it on display mere minutes after the president delivered his State of the Union address. Gov. Gary Locke of Washington, who offered the official Democratic response, seized the opportunity to attack the president's agenda for Medicare reform. "Our parents shouldn't be forced to give up their doctor or join an HMO to get the medicine they need," he said. "That wouldn't save Medicare; it would privatize it."
Mr. Locke was spinning rhetorical gold: A nightmare vision of seniors being barred from seeing doctors they trust, thrown instead to the ravenous HMO wolves prowling the cold, dark forest of corporate healthcare.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, picked up Mr. Locke's thread: "The president's proposal is an effort to say [that] if seniors want to have help with their prescription drug costs, they would have to lose their choice of doctor and go into a private-sector HMO."
Within hours, this speculation became entrenched opposition dogma. Yet there's no evidence to support it.
As the New York Times reported, the president's draft plan would offer a range of health-plan choices. These include not only HMOs, but also Preferred Provider Organizations (PPOs) and fee-for-service plans. White House officials stressed this in a fact sheet they distributed the day the president spoke: "All seniors will be given choices of a variety of health plans, similar to those enjoyed by members of Congress."
Mr. Locke and Mrs. Stabenow apparently were in such a hurry to criticize the president's plan that they didn't want to confuse the public with the facts.
"Seniors happy with the current Medicare system should be able to keep their coverage just the way it is," the president said. "And just like you, the members of Congress, members of your staffs and other federal employees, all seniors should have the choice of a health-care plan that provides prescription drugs."
"Like you." That's the crux of Mr. Bush's message to Congress. His preferred model for Medicare reform is the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), which covers the White House, Congress, congressional staff members, and 9 million federal employees, retirees and their families.
It's easy to see why the president touts the FEHBP. Federal workers and retirees can choose from a wide range of plans and a variety of benefit packages often between a dozen and two dozen in any area of the country. These include traditional insurance plans, union and employee organization plans, national fee-for-service plans, and, yes, even HMOs.
The range of choices available to federal employees, retirees and their families is unprecedented. Unlike Medicare, each FEHBP plan has catastrophic coverage. Each also has prescription-drug coverage generous coverage, too, typically picking up 80 percent or more of drug costs and giving federal employees and retirees solid discounts on drug prices.
Although 100 percent of the health plans competing in the FEHBP have prescription-drug coverage, the U.S. General Accounting Office reports that only 30 percent of federal enrollees choose to enroll in HMOs. About 70 percent are enrolled in various fee-for-service plans, virtually all of which contract with PPOs and provide generous benefits. Not one person in the FEHBP is forced to enroll in an HMO to get prescription-drug coverage.
Where do Mr. Locke and his congressional allies get the notion that Mr. Bush is going to "privatize" Medicare? The president has repeatedly stated that his model for reform is the FEHBP, a government program with a solid record of success over its 43 years. The Office of Personnel Management, a government agency, administers the program. Congress votes taxpayers' funds for the program. It's financed through a trust fund at the Treasury Department. If the FEHBP is "privatized," that's a big surprise to the government employees who run it.
If opponents of the president's plan want to critique his reform proposal on its merits, that's fine. Instead, they appear to be intent on blocking change and scoring political points by frightening seniors.
To get a clearer picture of the president's model for Medicare reform and whether it's something seniors should fear, ask yourself: Have members of Congress and federal officials designed and, for four decades, maintained an inferior health-care program for themselves and their families? The president's critics hope you never take time to think about that.

Robert E. Moffit is director of domestic policy studies for the Heritage Foundation.

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