- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Americans have taken a look at the Medicare prescription drug benefit, and they like what they see. By the end of the day tomorrow — the deadline to sign up for the benefit — more than 90 percent of those on Medicare should have some sort of prescription drug coverage.

When it released official statistics Wednesday, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reported more than 37 million Americans — more than 85 percent of those eligible for Medicare — have enrolled in Medicare prescription drug benefit or have equivalent coverage through a former employer or the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Nobody ever expected absolutely everyone on Medicare would sign up: Just as some eligible beneficiaries already opt out of doctors’ visits and outpatient care that Medicare Part B covers, some eligible individuals may decide they don’t need or want drug coverage.

But the overwhelming majority do want it. Not counting those who have VA prescription coverage, the benefit has reached nearly 35,000 District residents, more than 540,000 Virginians and about 400,000 Marylanders.

Since CMS reports heavy enrollment volume ahead of tomorrow’s deadline, we have every reason to believe the numbers will swell even further. Already, Medicare has helped pay for well above 280 million prescriptions; just about one for every American. America’s seniors and disabled citizens have voted with their written applications, telephone calls and mouse clicks: they want Medicare prescription drug benefits.

All who sign up will get good drug coverage. On average, beneficiaries will save more than $1,100 each per year. And most seniors already pay lower monthly premiums than experts predicted. Low-income recipients of the drug benefit receive the greatest boost to their standard of living.

Over time, I expect the drug benefit will become even more popular. Unlike the traditional Medicare Parts A and B — which some have criticized for providing beneficiaries with a one-size-fits-all benefit package — the drug benefit offers a plethora of choices.

As of last Wednesday, Maryland and District residents could pick between 48 different drug plans. Northern Virginians had 42 choices. Some plans provide basic coverage for as little as 21 cents a day. Others provide more extensive benefits and charge more for them. The least expensive plan available in each jurisdiction covers all of Medicare’s 100 most commonly used drugs, and some-low cost plans provide coverage even beyond the minimum specified. In the coming months, competition between the various plans will likely expand benefits while containing costs. In time, I believe this market-based structure will become a model for other government programs.

Providing prescription drugs may also save taxpayers money. As a result of new diagnostic test coverage and a brand-new “Welcome to Medicare” exam Congress created along with the drug benefit, Medicare has begun focusing on preventative care. Just as early detection of a worrying lump can prevent painful, expensive chemotherapy down the road, providing a few dollars to help a senior citizen pay for his or her pills can prevent a heart attack later. In the next few years, thanks to the same legislation, doctors, hospitals and pharmacies will begin to roll out a national e-prescribing system that will eliminate paper prescriptions and sometimes deadly errors from difficult-to-read prescription handwriting.

It’s important to remember, however, that Medicare’s costs will continue to rise as Baby Boomers enter the system. We need to consider fundamental reforms that will make Medicare sustainable for the next generation. But we’ve taken the first big step toward bringing Medicare into the modern era.

Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, is the majority leader of the United States Senate.

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