A 'cure' that'll make things worse

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Jun 25, 2003 12:00 AM

To meet a deadline that means nothing, set only to satisfy a president who seems not to notice, the Senate is preparing to pass legislation that would make HillaryCare – the former first lady's proposal to socialize American medicine – look like sound public policy.

President Bush has said he will sign a measure to extend prescription-drug coverage to all seniors through Medicare – but the one making its way to his desk has Teddy Kennedy licking his chops and smiling like a Cheshire cat.

No one is saying seniors shouldn't have prescription-drug coverage. But in its rush to meet the artificial, arbitrary deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate is poised to do "reform" in the worst way possible ... to pass the largest and most disastrous expansion of social spending since the Great Society programs of the mid-1960s.

The early estimates are that the new drug benefit will cost taxpayers $7.5 trillion – read that, trillions. This benefit would, in reality, become an entitlement, which means that budgeting means nothing – that whatever it costs to fulfill this entitlement will be charged to the American taxpayer, no questions asked, forever and ever.

President Bush started off on the right foot in this debate. He proposed a system modeled on the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program, the highly successful, highly popular insurance program that covers members of Congress and their staffs, White House staffers and 9 million other federal employees, their beneficiaries and federal retirees.

FEHBP offers beneficiaries a variety of coverage plans, all of which offer prescription-drug coverage. The private-sector insurance companies would have to provide good service to attract customers and hold down costs to make a profit.

President Bush proposed to sweeten the drug benefit for those who left Medicare and entered these more-efficient private plans. But in recent days, in an effort to pass a bill – any bill – Frist and others in the Senate have agreed to strike this and make the benefit equal for those who remain in Medicare.

What would this mean? A good one to ask is Robert Moffit, my colleague at the Heritage Foundation and one of the nation's leading experts on health care, who just wrote a piercing diagnosis of the new legislation.

As Moffit reports, about a third of all seniors get their prescription-drug coverage through their employers or former employers. And nearly 40 percent of those seniors – their income levels notwithstanding – would shift from being covered by reasonably priced private insurance to a government-subsidized program that already is hemorrhaging cash.

Sen. Frist says he agreed to this compromise because he'd been told only about 2 percent of seniors would move into a private plan if President Bush's proposal were adopted. The White House says as many as 28 percent would take the offer. Common sense demands we take another look at the disparity in figures.

Privately run care is the secure future of Medicare. Almost everyone who studies the issue without an overwhelming bias in favor of big government agrees. Which makes the word from the White House to roll over – Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (contact) has pronounced himself and the administration "pleased with the progress" of the bill – even more disappointing. The New York Times calls it "a tactical retreat." Bob Moffit calls it "a huge step backward from reform."

I call it capitulation for the sake of politics. Monday's Wall Street Journal editorial agrees, "President Bush, you'll recall, came to town promising to fix Medicare and Social Security so they would remain solvent when the Baby Boomers retire. But soon after launching the Medicare debate this year, the White House decided that the politics of a new drug entitlement are so good that the actual policy doesn't matter."

When a beloved president and otherwise principled congressional leaders support policies that expand government in a manner that only a liberal could love, the efforts must be vehemently opposed. This is one of those times. President Bush's advisers fail to recognize that such a tremendous disregard for his stated core values in exchange for some perceived political gain could actually do to him what reneging on the "no new taxes" pledge did to his father – de-couple him from his base and topple any chance of a second term.

In a recent CNN interview, Sen. Kennedy blatantly laid out his plan to use this Medicare proposal as the foundation for his plans to build even bigger health-care government: "But this is going to be a down payment. And one thing is going to be for sure. When we get this as a down payment, we're going to come back again and again and again and fight to make sure that we have a good program."

Conservatives who support the measure for political reasons are betraying the faith of the American public who elected them. Taking a little longer to solve the senior prescription problem correctly is the principled, right thing to do.