Alan Reynolds

What if Medicare threw a really lavish party and nobody showed up?

Last week, as Medicare cheerleaders valiantly attempted to persuade, bribe or threaten seniors to sign-up for one of dozens of different prescription drug plans, there were numerous reports of people being so totally befuddled they might just take a pass.

Each plan has its own formulary, which decides how much of which drugs will be covered and which of those covered will be placed in a higher "tier" with a co-payment of $60 or more. I found one plan that charges $20.87 a month yet pays nothing on six of my wife's seven prescriptions. Making such choices sufficiently risky and difficult to scare many away might be one way to save money, but there are wiser solutions.

The cost to taxpayers of Medicare Part D was initially estimated at $400 billion over the next 10 years, but that was soon revised to $520 billion and then $760 billion. Those first 10 years would be cheap compared with the following 20. The number of people eligible for Medicare will nearly double by 2030. Medicare is projected to rise from 12 percent of the federal budget to 25 percent by 2025, which is literally unsustainable because young taxpayers will not sustain it.

We got into this mess as a result of 40 years of political hubris. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, legislators and bureaucrats continue to believe they should dictate what sort of insurance coverage seniors should be allowed to buy. This arrogance persisted even after the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988 was given a decent burial by the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Repeal Act of 1989. It continued even after the "Medicare C" plans of 1997 (mostly HMOs) faced declining enrollment since 2000.

When it comes to the new Medicare drug plans, Congress assumes folks in their 80s must be sufficiently proficient with computers to log on to and pick between dozens of different Medicare drug plans. Yet that same Congress imagines those same seniors must be protected from any opportunity to choose insurance that makes economic sense.

Isn't insurance supposed to protect against surprisingly large expenses, rather than routine outlays? Only a group of politicians would choose a policy that covers a generous 75 percent of the first $2,250 yet not one cent of the next $2,850. Why are seniors compelled to have a zero or $250 deductible on Part D of Medicare and only a $110 deductible on Part B?

When buying home or car insurance, smart shoppers would choose a deductible of at least $500.

Alan Reynolds

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