- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 23, 2003

After years of waiting, America’s seniors have within their reach affordable prescription drugs, better health benefits and more choices — if Congress delivers for them by passing legislation to modernize and strengthen Medicare.

Before Congress right now is bipartisan legislation that marks the most significant improvement in senior health care since Medicare was created in 1965. It is a package of benefits and reforms that is too valuable for seniors and Congress to let slip away.

Here’s why.

Real prescription drug savings: Seniors next spring would get a discount drug card providing 10 percent to 25 percent savings on purchases. Low-income seniors would get an additional $600 credit on this card.

Then, in 2006, seniors would receive a 75 percent subsidy on their drug purchases up to $2,250, paying only 25 percent themselves. If out-of-pocket costs exceeded $3,600, seniors would pay only 5 percent. All these savings come with an affordable $35 monthly premium and $250 deductible.

The seniors who can afford to pay the least would get the most help. They would pay no deductible, no premiums and co-pay as little as $1 on purchases.

What does this mean in real dollars? A senior currently without drug coverage and monthly drug spending of $800 would see her spending cut by 61 percent or $5,868. A senior who spends $400 a month would save 50 percent or $2,404.

A common drug such as Lipitor currently costs seniors about $108.65 a month.

After the discounted price and subsidy, seniors would pay only $21.73 a month. Low-income seniors would pay $4.35 a month.

With this legislation, seniors will be cutting their bills in half rather than their pills.

More choices. Seniors value choice in their doctor, hospital and health care. This plan gives them the same range of choices as members of Congress and federal employees.

Seniors can choose to stay in traditional Medicare and get help paying for drugs. They can choose a stronger Medicare-sponsored managed care program.

Or they could choose a new Medicare-approved private plan, or PPO, similar to what most Americans in the marketplace have now. These choices are all voluntary; seniors don’t have to change a thing if they don’t want.

Better benefits. Seniors will gain access to more preventive benefits and disease management, helping them live a higher quality of life. Seniors entering Medicare will receive an initial physical examination to make an assessment of their health and plan a course to good health.

As part of this visit, seniors would get preventive services such as vaccinations, mammograms, diabetes self-management tools and screenings for cancer, diabetes, glaucoma and cardiovascular disease.

The legislation also provides important new investments in rural health care, providing greater access to hospitals, health professionals and other medical services for rural seniors.

These are just a few of the major improvements to Medicare, but they drive home the importance of getting this legislation passed. This $400 billion investment is too good for seniors to leave on the table in Washington.

It’s easy to understand why AARP, which represents 35 million seniors, is endorsing this legislation. It knows this plan substantially strengthens health care for seniors, even if it isn’t perfect. But as AARP says, seniors can’t afford to wait for perfect.

This is very good legislation. It makes modern medicine available to seniors in a modern way. And we won’t be able to make future improvements unless we first take this giant step forward.

The bottom line is that this bipartisan legislation gives seniors in Medicare better health care than they have now, particularly with prescription drug coverage.

Congress needs to deliver. Our seniors have waited long enough.

Tommy G. Thompson is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before becoming secretary, he was governor of Wisconsin for 14 years. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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