Who's 'getting the shaft' on Medicare?

Posted: Jul 30, 2002 12:00 AM
For several years now, politicians of both parties have been falling all over themselves to support yet another government entitlement: paying a hefty slice of prescription drug costs for senior citizens in the Medicare program. Creeping socialized health care is a reality because no one is doing a thing to stop it. It does not matter that the average senior citizen pays only $650 a year on his or her prescriptions. It does not matter that the current Medicare program's share of our economy is already expected to double between now and 2035. It does not matter that senior citizens are usually much wealthier than the young kids just getting married, starting families, and expected to pay for this. What matters is that elections are coming. Everyone knows that senior citizens vote in noticeably larger percentages, and that's all that counts for our career politicians. If you pinched a politician, he'd acknowledge that most lawmakers don't expect a prescription-drug subsidy to pass this year. Conservatives with an eye on bulging deficits -- and how Democrats will blame them on the "huge" Bush tax cut, no matter how much wasteful new spending is added -- are praying for gridlock to keep the budget in check. But in the socialist hotbeds of network news, stalemate is an outrage. Washington is worthless unless politicians are loading yet another budget-busting, ever-expanding retirement subsidy on the backs of unretired taxpayers. On CBS, Dan Rather was lobbying for just one subset of his fellow citizens. "Senior Americans who saw retirement savings evaporate in the Wall Street meltdown have another financial headache now," he warned. "It turns out it was all talk and no action with the President and Congress again today on passing any version of Medicare prescription drug coverage." Reporter Bob Schieffer explicitly endorsed the new subsidy. He quoted liberal Sen. Tom Harkin that "It's time that we make good on the promise of 44 million Americans who rely on Medicare." But then this objective reporter added: "It's a good thought. Drugs have become so expensive, seniors can go to places like Mexico and buy American-made drugs cheaper than they can buy them at home." Not done, Schieffer sounded the alarm: "They say they'll keep trying, but don't bet on them getting far. Instead, expect Democrats to blame Republicans, Republicans to blame Democrats, and the White House to blame Congress. Seniors, in the meanwhile, just get the shaft." So, let's get this straight. The average annual amount of Medicare benefits per enrollee right now, before any new goodies, is $6,200. That's taken right out of the hides of younger people in the work force. But because Congress hasn't yet larded another thousand or two on that average bill, seniors are the group "getting the shaft"? Over at ABC, Charles Gibson seemed upset that the Senate couldn't agree on a plan. He pleaded to reporter Jackie Judd: "I mentioned 34 million Americans eligible for it. That's a lot of voters. Elderly people say they want it. Can they come up with a compromise before this coming election?" It's bad enough that we're faced with liberal unanimity with both parties pandering to pile on the senior subsidy bandwagon. But when reporters can't find one second of air time for anyone opposed to another hemorrhaging entitlement, it's an outrage. They could have called Tom Miller, the director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute. He thinks feeding this sort of political appetite will only worsen Medicare's fiscal stress down the road, when Medicare will take more and more from the general revenue pot and less from payroll taxes and monthly premiums. Miller argues: "Simply adding another layer of underfunded, irresponsible promises to Medicare will stimulate beneficiary demand for 'cheap' drugs and overuse of those benefits. It is sure to be followed by exploding budgetary costs and increases in the 'unsubsidized' price of Medicare's prescription drugs. Up next will be waves of drug coverage rollbacks, regulatory restrictions, tighter drug formularies and price controls that chill future innovative research and snuff out the next round of life-saving drugs." A serious concern worth explaining? Nah. The Bob Schieffers of this world aren't really students of policy debates. They're hackneyed pleaders for more government. Who among the TV-news junkies doubts that if Miller's scenario came true -- exploding taxpayer costs, price controls, regulatory restrictions -- the Schieffers would be out there shaking a fist at "draconian benefit cuts" and demanding more government cops to pound on those greedy drug manufacturers? It's propagandistic news coverage like this -- reporters and anchors do everything but wave placards -- that drives viewers in droves away from network news, searching for that elusive other side of the story. One of the groups that's spent decades "getting the shaft" is broadcast-news viewers who'd like even a few seconds of balance for the idea that another government program is not the answer, or opposing the idea that government's highest calling is to redirect tax dollars to the most frequent voters, regardless of actual need. But that's asking too much.