Medicare would be healthier with prescription drug benefit

Posted: Sunday, May 19, 2002

As Congress works overtime to meet its self-imposed Memorial Day deadline for introducing competing plans to address the need for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare, I was reminded that it was nearly six decades ago, in 1945, when President Harry S. Truman first spoke of a national crisis in health care. He said, "Millions of our citizens do not now have a full

measure of opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health. Millions do not now have protection or security against the economic effect of sickness. And the time has now arrived for action to help them attain that opportunity."

Fifty-seven years and 10 presidents later, George W. Bush urged the Congress in his 2002 State of the Union address to "give seniors a sound and modern Medicare system that includes coverage for prescription drugs." When it comes to health care in America, it seems that the more things change the more they remain the same.

While much has been done to improve health care for Americans since Truman first called the nation to action -- most notably the creation of Medicare in 1965 -- one huge gap remains. We must stop the incessant debate in Washington and finally add prescription drug coverage that is available and affordable to people on Medicare. And we must do it now. With all the new advances in medicine and drug therapies, if Medicare were being designed today, not including a prescription drug benefit would be as absurd as not covering doctor visits or hospital stays.

At a time when we have the medical know-how to shorten expensive hospital stays, while helping more people live longer, healthier lives, millions of Medicare beneficiaries are being squeezed out and left behind because they simply cannot afford the high cost of prescription drugs. A central mission of AARP since our founding 44 years ago has been helping older Americans build retirement security. No longer is that structure of security simply the "three-legged stool" of Social Security, private pensions and personal savings.

Seniors in Alaska often tell us their retirement savings are quickly being depleted by the high-cost of prescription drugs, and it is clear we must add a fourth pillar to the retirement security structure -- stable, affordable and adequate health insurance. That is why AARP has made securing a prescription drug benefit within Medicare its No. 1 priority in our work with the White House and the Congress. It will be good for the state of Alaska and it will be good for America.

Tonight, at kitchen tables throughout Alaska and across this nation, millions of Medicare beneficiaries will stare in disbelief at household budgets that are rapidly reaching the breaking point because of the high out-of-pocket costs of prescription drugs. And most of them don't have much of a choice. Every day, eight out of 10 retirees use at least one prescription drug. The average Medicare beneficiary fills 18 prescriptions a year.

While AARP is hopeful that an acceptable plan will emerge this year in Washington, we have put forth three principles, which we believe must be part of any successful legislation. First, a Medicare prescription drug benefit must offer real value at a fair price. Second, it must be available to all Medicare beneficiaries everywhere in the country. And third, it must help bring down soaring drug costs.

This is both a life- and-death and an economic issue for many seniors. Americans over the age of 65 represent 13 percent of the population, but

account for 42 percent of drug spending. A recent AARP survey found that one in five seniors said they have not filled a prescription from their doctor this year; cost was the primary reason. Given how far medicine has advanced since Medicare was created in 1965, securing a meaningful prescription drug benefit in Medicare is not just about honoring our commitment to our parents and grandparents, as noble a purpose as that is -- it is also about taking the economic burden of providing health care for seniors off the shoulders of their children. Ultimately, it is about strengthening one of this nation's finest achievements -- the Medicare program.

As members of Congress return home for the Memorial Day recess, they should heed the words of another American president, Abraham Lincoln, who said, "You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today." This issue has been debated and evaded long enough. We must not let another budget cycle or election cycle go by without enacting Medicare drug coverage that is accessible and affordable for all.

I urge you to call our congressional delegation before they break for the Memorial Day weekend and urge them to enact Medicare drug coverage. In Kenai, call Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young at 283-5808.

Marguerite Stetson is a long-time Alaska resident who volunteers her time as an advocacy representative for the AARP Alaska Executive Council.

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