By Rep. JIM McDERMOTT
WASHINGTON -- Millions of senior citizens today are falling into a hole created by legislation Republicans claimed would benefit seniors when it was actually written by drug companies who unabashedly favored themselves first and foremost.
Medicare Part D was a historic opportunity to provide real relief for seniors to help cover the cost of prescription drugs. But Republicans were more interested in special interests than the common good, and so they forced through Congress a deeply flawed bill that overwhelmingly fails the American people.
The legislation includes a so-called donut hole -- a gap in coverage where seniors continue to pay premiums but receive no benefit. Once they use $2,250 in benefits, seniors are left on their own, and coverage does not resume until they have spent $3,600 of their own money. Seniors are forced to pay the full cost of prescription drugs, and at the same time they still have to pay a premium to their insurance company every month.
The legislation neutralizes the enormous purchasing power of 40 million seniors that would otherwise yield dramatic savings in the cost of drugs.
The legislation channels implementation through hundreds of private insurance companies that contract with Medicare. This fragments purchasing power into hundreds of pieces, and the legislation reinforces this artificial price support by explicitly prohibiting the secretary of health and human services from negotiating on behalf of seniors for lower drug prices. Prices for drugs most often used by seniors have gone up substantially since this program was created.
Medicare Part D forces seniors to choose among complex and confusing plans by a date certain, or be penalized 1 percent a month for every month they postpone a decision. And the penalty would apply forever.
Our nation's seniors deserve and need help covering the cost of their prescription drugs, which will total nearly $2 trillion over the next 10 years. The ability of pharmaceutical advances to fight disease and prolong life is extraordinary -- and amazing advances are just ahead. To deny seniors access to these benefits is simply unacceptable. And to take advantage of seniors as Republicans have done through this special-interest legislation is equally unacceptable.
When it comes to health care, Congress must have only one special interest -- the American people. Yet the private sector bemoans every effort to include every American in a health-care program, even as the crisis worsens.
If nothing else, the failure of Medicare Part D should be a wake-up call for the need to treat the health-care crisis as any physician (and I am one) would treat a gravely ill patient. All the Band-Aids the special interests have applied have done nothing to heal the wound, much less cure the problem.
America spends more money on health care than dozens of other major nations, and yet Americans receive less.
The conclusion is inescapable: health care is on life support and it is time to administer effective treatment. It is time for America to have universal health care that will put the interests of the American people ahead of the special interests.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., is a member of the House Ways and Committee. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.