From the always graceful pen of the always graceful Grace-Marie Turner …
As you will recall, the Galen Institute worked hard, along with AEI and Heritage, several years ago to promote an idea for a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would be based upon a funded drug discount card coupled with insurance coverage for large drug expenses. Our idea was adopted in part with the enactment of the temporary drug discount card. The Medicare Modernization Act created a program to allow private plans to offer Medicare-approved discount cards to all beneficiaries and also provided $600 a year to those with low-incomes to help with drug expenses. This was a transitional program designed to provide help in 2004 and 2005 until the permanent drug benefit could be implemented. Opponents of the drug benefit did everything they could at the time to criticize the temporary assistance program, actively discouraging seniors from signing up — and disadvantaging their constituents in the progress. So now, Rep. Henry Waxman asked the Government Accountability Office for a study of the program, and The New York Times reports that “Congressional investigators … found serious, widespread problems.” This is outrageous for a number of reasons:
The GAO’s findings were overblown by Rep. Waxman and the Times. Medicare Administrator Mark McClellan told the Times and the GAO that the number of problems and complaints was relatively small, given the size of the program and how quickly it had to be up and running. “Millions of prescriptions have been filled, with only a tiny fraction of complaints and compliance issues,” McClellan said.
Opponents of the drug benefit discouraged their constituents from signing up, and surprise, surprise, enrollment was much less than it could have been (6.4 million beneficiaries, including 1.9 million who received the $600 annual credit).
The temporary program provided an important learning experience both for the Medicare agency and for private plans now enrolling beneficiaries in the permanent benefit plan. When administrators learned of problems, they acted to correct them. Reports like this feed the other side’s mantra that the permanent drug benefit is too complicated and offers too many choices, with the implication that seniors simply won’t be able to figure out how to pick a plan that provides them the drugs they need at the best prices for the lowest premiums. This is frustrating, but perhaps these are the growing pains of implementing a new entitlement through a system of choice involving private plans. The unspoken alternative — a one-size-fits-all government plan — would simply have been unable to meet the complex and diverse needs of seniors. If there is howling now over choice, imaging the howling there would have been over no choice!