From disaster to disaster

Posted: Jul 30, 2003 12:00 AM

Ever wondered what it's like to be a police officer on New Year's Eve?

What a night of work that has to be – racing from accident to accident, dodging (and arresting) weaving celebrants all along the way. Spending a 10-hour shift working as the only line of defense between the general public and the ravages of inexperienced drunks turned out onto the highways and sidewalks like so many unguided missiles with ton-and-a-quarter payloads. I bet the officers have no problem falling asleep when they finally make it home after that.

It seems like, in recent weeks, we're getting a dose of that feeling here at the Heritage Foundation. Instead of racing around to wrecks, fights and other small disasters, we're trying to keep the country safe from the huge disaster that would result if Congress doesn't come to its senses about how to create a prescription-drug benefit for seniors.

Like those bedraggled cops, we don't get a lot of help. The House of Representatives wants to do it one way, the Senate another, and President Bush – whose original proposal most closely matched our own proposal – now just wants something, anything, done as soon as possible. Oh, and he wants bipartisan agreement – even more cooks in the stew.

We fully acknowledge that something has to be done so less-well-off seniors don't have to eat dog food to afford their prescription drugs. It's just that, aside from President Bush's original proposal to model the program on the highly successful health plan that serves Congress, the White House staff and other federal employees, no one has come up with an affordable idea that would actually help seniors.

At first, we were participating in a philosophical – and occasional – discussion on what legislation should look like with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Stuart Butler, vice-president of domestic policy and one of the nation's leading experts on health-care policy, has worked for years with members such as Sen. John Breaux, D-La., to find a reasonable answer to this problem. Bob Moffit, director of domestic policy at Heritage, is a former Office of Personnel Management official who understands the benefits of the federal employees' program and the budgetary nightmare the proposals in Congress would create.

As time has gone on, Butler and Moffit are like those poor police officers – on duty around the clock, staving off disaster after disaster. And, as legislation has moved through Congress, the battle for a sensible drug benefit has become daily in character. Every day, our staff produces something called "Medicare Maladies" – with blood-red letterhead, no less – to call attention to the problems with the current proposals.

One points out the hypocrisy of a Congress that has voted to exempt itself from the program it wants to subject us to and keep the program it has – and that we at Heritage want made available to all. Another describes how the formidable cost of these proposals – the bidding starts at $400 billion over 10 years and figures to go way, way up – could well mean a rollback of all of President Bush's tax cuts or at least an end to any talk at making them permanent.

Still another details how the present proposals would force the average senior on Medicare to pay $621 more per year in out-of-pocket expenses – a 60 percent increase over current averages – for prescription drugs. And another highlights the frustration expressed by the nation's editorial writers, who seem to agree on basically one thing – that the proposals in Congress won't work.

Go to our website and check out our work. Also, consult your local op-ed pages for near-daily contributions from our various analysts and others, including me in this space on at least three occasions, assessing the legislation. Search for the latest from Butler, Moffit, Ed Haislmaier, Derek Hunter, Lanhee Chen and others on the problems with the current proposals.

It's exciting being here during this time. It's all hands on deck with extra help brought in for this one titanic battle for sanity. But unlike those police officers on New Year's Day, if we don't bring some reason to this process, if we can't convince Congress to consider a more practical, less costly approach to bringing a prescription-drug benefit to seniors, we won't sleep well the next day. In fact, we won't sleep at all.