Medicare Reform isn’t Flying

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, August 11, 2004)


Even as a candidate in 2000, when he backed privatizing many a government program, George Bush touted the idea of adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. When he finally signed a new prescription drug bill in December, Bush no doubt expected the move to help him win the support of elderly voters. But a new survey shows the bill’s limited scope has made it largely unpopular with Medicare recipients.

In a survey released Tuesday, the Kaiser Family Foundation found nearly half the Medicare recipients interviewed had a negative view of the Bush administration’s changes, and only 26 percent support them (By comparison, 73 percent like Medicare overall). Of the negative views, 81 percent said the problem is the new rules don’t go far enough. As Kaiser Foundation president Drew Altman told the New York Times:

“Views are decidedly more negative than positive. The law has not been the political plus that the president and Republicans had hoped for.”

That gives John Kerry a chance to increase his support among retirees, a population that narrowly backed Al Gore against Bush. The Kerry campaign plans a nationwide “Seniors for Kerry” outreach program, with plans to help the elderly with transportation to the polls and with absentee balloting. Democrats think the lukewarm reaction to the Bush health plan means those seniors will vote Kerry, and the candidate hammered on that theme Wednesday in Nevada:

“With rising health care costs and a dragging economy, our seniors and families are squeezed like never before…Seniors are cutting their pills in half, and we’re told the best we can do for them is a Medicare bill that’s riddled with waste and handouts to drug companies. We can do better.”

The Bush-passed Medicare reform takes full effect in 2006, though seniors can use prescription drug cards to save money on medicine before the full benefits are available. But it doesn’t let the Department of Health and Human Services negotiate for lower drug prices, and doesn’t allow for the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada. Both those ideas drew approval ratings of nearly 80 percent in the Kaiser survey, and Kerry has touted his support for both, citing drug prices that rose three times more than inflation last year:

“I call on the president to do what he should have done in the first place. I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price.”

Kerry is far from alone among politicians focusing on that issue. Vermont’s Republican Gov. Jim Douglas announced Tuesday that his state will be the first to sue the federal Food and Drug Administration after the FDA rejected the state’s plan to import drugs from Canada:

“The claims on which they’ve based this denial are, in our view, unsubstantiated, and we have no choice but to pursue any and all legal remedies available.”

Vermont asked the FDA in November to approve a plan in which the state would take medicine orders from residents and contract with a Canadian company to supply the drugs. But the FDA rejected the plan Monday, its latest attempt to block state governments that support importation.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried a similar program last year, only to receive an FDA rejection. A couple in that state has sued the FDA over its decision, but the state government has decided not to proceed without federal approval. New Hampshire Gov. Craig Benson has announced plans to import Canadian drugs for his state’s Medicare recipients, retired state employees and prison inmates. New Hampshire has also joined Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota in linking residents with Canadian drug companies online, letting the citizens purchase the drugs on their own.

The Bush administration retains its opposition to drug importation, arguing seniors will come around once they personally experience the benefits of the December Medicare changes. But if Kerry can gain traction on the issue, there will be a new president when those benefits take effect.

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