Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Medicare’s market-driven drug benefit has had the fastest start up a federal program in recent memory. More seniors were able to get coverage in three months than were able to obtain it after years under state Medicaid and prescription drug plans. Millions of poor seniors that were spending 30 percent of their income on drugs now pay nothing. As a result, they are in better health and the total cost of their care will go down.

Implementation problems had nothing to do with seniors — numbering in the thousands, not millions — not getting drugs. It was a spat about who was going to foot the bill during the time Medicaid eligible seniors chose a drug plan. The administration had a back up plan for resolving this issue in place and it worked well except in less than one percent of all cases. In no case was someone denied a medicine.

Unfortunately, the Senate is now considering a bill that would turn America’s market-driven Medicare program into a single payer clone of the Canadian system. Indeed, the bill — sponsored by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Ron Wyden — would do Canada one better: Because Medicare is about 40 percent of all drug spending, it would give the federal government control over the biggest share of the prescription drug market in the entire world.

The impact on the lives of seniors would be devastating. In Canada and other countries, people suffer and die while waiting as the government “negotiates” the price of new medicines for cancer, Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis. Further, there is no government system — the Veteran’s Affairs program included — that doesn’t ration access to new medicines to save money by excluding new drugs due to price or usage. This approach fails to take into account the value of medicines. It drives up spending and maims people in the process.

For every dollar spent on new medicines, Medicare saves $8 on other forms of care, and seniors wind up living longer and healthier lives. The new Medicare drug benefit was shaped around this insight. The Snowe-Wyden bill is dedicated to its utter obliteration. Those who vote for its passage are voting to kill medical innovation and the blessings it brings to millions of seniors.

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