Drugging seniors

Posted: Apr 01, 2001 12:00 AM
Richard Lagerstrom, 75, of Mountain View, Calif., is one senior who isn't salivating at the prospect of a universal taxpayer-subsidized prescription drug benefit. "It ain't fair," said Lagerstrom. "Some of us have a lot and we don't need extra handouts." Describing himself as comfortable but not rich, Lagerstrom said he'd like a Medicare drug benefit, but only for those seniors who can't afford to pay for their medicine. "I feel this is going to land on our kids unless we take some responsibility," he added. "I don't think the representatives and senators can feel comfortable touching this stuff." Lagerstrom feels so strongly about not getting more benefits he doesn't need that he is a volunteer for the Concord Coalition, the bipartisan federal-budget watchdog group. Last month, congressional subcommittees held hearings on a new drug benefit. Capitol Hillians want to pass a bill. The question is whether the benefit will be universal (as Vice President Al Gore suggested during his presidential run), universally accessible (seniors could choose a plan that provides a drug bennie, as Sen. John Breaux, D-La., and President Bush propose) or means-tested so that only low- and middle-income seniors would benefit (according to the House Ways and Means Committee, there is no such bill). Amazing. For all the Washington politicians who drone on about fiscal responsibility, no one is proposing a drug benefit only for the people who need it. The good news is that a universal plan is no longer a given. Said the Concord Coalition's Harry Zeeve, "There is nothing remotely resembling a consensus on how to handle this." The bad news is that D.C. pols are touting the new benefit even though Medicare revenues are expected to fall below expenses in 2016 -- without adding any new benefits. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, warns that the gap between Medicare spending and premiums is expected to reach $333 trillion over the next 75 years. That's a third of a quadrillion. Yet D.C. pols want to add a pricey new benefit. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a universal benefit covering 50 percent of drug costs would cost $728 billion through 2011 -- or almost half the proposed Bush tax cut. Which makes you wonder: Why aren't the people who insist that America can't afford a new tax cut bellowing that America can't afford a new hand-out for the cruise set? Without means-testing, the proposed benefit would add a new twist to Robin Hoodism -- take from the young and struggling, give to the old and asseted. Maya MacGuineas of the Generation X group Third Millennium asked a House subcommittee last month, "Is it fair to ask low-wage workers in each of your districts, who themselves can barely afford prescription drugs and some of whom have no health insurance at all, to subsidize the drug benefits of those who want a handout but don't need one?" MacGuineas reported the results of a poll her group conducted on 500 adults age 18 to 34. Three out of 5 of the GenXers would support a Medicare drug benefit for seniors with household incomes of $40,000, while one in five would support the same benefit for those making more than $100,000. (And woe to those one in five GenXers, who obviously have no idea what it means to work for a living.) Too bad that the under-35 crowd doesn't vote as much as seniors. Too bad that most pols on the Hill believe that most seniors are not like Richard Lagerstrom of Mountain View.