- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 16, 2006

Just when it seemed everything was turning sour for President Bush, according to the polls, a large and influential voting bloc is giving one of his chief domestic reforms surprisingly high marks.

For months, stories about Mr. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug program were uniformly negative: Seniors found the sign-up process too confusing, few were applying for the program, and the cost savings, if any, were minimal at best.

But now the story is that scores have signed up, 29 million at last count, and a large percentage of seniors say they are saving a great deal on the drugs they purchase through the discount program.

Contrary to those network news reports about the difficulty in applying for the program (apparently they could not find anyone who liked it), the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll found 74 percent of all seniors said they had “an easy time” signing up, compared to only 24 percent who said it was too confusing.

As for all those reports suggesting the discount savings were small to nonexistent, this poll found just the opposite. A sizable 63 percent said they were saving “a lot” or “some,” compared to 26 percent who said their drugs were just as expensive.

But perhaps the most authoritative poll of all is the one by the AARP, the politically powerful senior-issues lobby that backed the prescription-drug reforms during its passage in 2003. The AARP poll, released last week, reported 78 percent of seniors who have signed up for the benefits were happy with its results. Only 20 percent voiced disapproval.

That’s pretty impressive by any standard, strongly suggesting the early gloom-and-doom stories about the program’s problems were premature.

Those stories reminded me of the early news reports about the airline deregulation program that began under President Jimmy Carter and was pushed through Congress by an unholy alliance of liberals, who included Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, and free-market conservatives who wanted to open the industry to more competition.

But as the deregulatory reforms got under way, the big three news networks began running a litany of similar reports of how confusing it all was and how airline passengers were getting ripped off. The classic wrongheaded story at the time was aired on CBS News, introduced by anchorman Dan Rather this way: “What price airline deregulation? Meredith Viera takes a look at the confusion it has caused.”

Her story told of passengers suddenly being faced with many different fares from competing airlines, often on the same routes. To her, it was “all so confusing.” The story told of one man who paid more for a flight, before finding a passenger who got a cheaper fare from a competitor.

Of course, this was nothing but old-fashioned price-cutting competition, as the government-run, single-set pricing system was being junked in favor of market reforms that freed airlines (within parameters) to set their prices without seeking the approval of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which was abolished. This healthy but sometimes messy competition led to a revolution in super-saver fares that opened air travel to millions of ordinary, lower-income Americans.

The enactment of tax-deferred or tax-free Individual Retirement Accounts seemed confusing, too, at first, as banks offered a multiplicity of plans and inducements and interest rates. But the industry adjusted, and tens of millions of savers who opened accounts have benefited.

In the same way, President Bush’s prescription-benefits bill is opening the prescription drug industry to more competition by allowing a multitude of private discount companies to sign up customers, offering a variety of plans that may seem a little confusing at first but allow seniors to shop around for the best deal.

The Democrats overwhelmingly opposed Mr. Bush’s prescription drug plan, largely because they hate turning anything over to the private sector. The drug-discount program was “fundamentally flawed” because private businesses were delivering the benefit, Mr. Kennedy said last week. But this is the program’s strongest attribute, giving competitors every incentive to offer deeper discounts to sign up new members.

I wasn’t a supporter of this program because I thought it was too big and too costly, adding heavier financial obligations onto a Medicare program already facing huge liabilities without the drug benefit add-on.

But there are recent signs the cost projections may not be as high as initially feared. New estimates suggest the subsidy bills will be billions of dollars less than forecast.

If that’s the case, it will be due in part to the program’s market-oriented structure. That needs to be broadened and improved in the legislative fine-tuning that will no doubt be done in the years to come.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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