October 24, 2003

Commentary:

Medicare Needs to be Improved, Not Unraveled

By: U.S. House Representative Raúl Grijalva
Congressman Grijalva Represents the
7th District of Arizona

Thirty eight years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created the Medicare program, allowing those of us in government to fulfill our responsibility to help those who worked so hard to provide us with the prosperity we enjoy today. Now we have the opportunity to enhance the most successful program in our nation’s history. For years, more than three million Latino Seniors have been waiting for a Medicare prescription drug benefit that is guaranteed, affordable, and available to all.  That’s what House Democrats are working for.

Unfortunately, instead of being designed to help seniors and the disabled, the House Republican bill is designed to help HMOs and insurance companies.  The Republican controlled Congress is determined to pass a prescription drug benefit at any cost, but according to this legislation, that cost will have to be paid by our seniors. Latino Seniors deserve a prescription drug benefit that is real and guaranteed, not one that is riskier and more expensive.

That is why Democrats crafted a plan that would have provided much needed relief to 40 million Americans, who depend on Medicare, and all older Americans who face the harsh reality of rising prescription drug costs. A Medicare prescription drug benefit should be: Affordable, reducing the exorbitant prices of drugs; Meaningful, with guaranteed benefits; Within Medicare; and Available to all, regardless of where they live.

The Republican proposals have failed to meet each one of these basic standards.

And what does the Republican bill do? It turns Medicare over to HMOs.  It disadvantages millions of seniors in rural areas. More than 80% of rural beneficiaries live in counties with no HMO programs and the House bill has no fallback if HMO’s don’t materialize in these areas.

This legislation is now in conference and Members of the Senate and Congress are debating the final elements of the bill.  Bill Thomas, the Republican Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, clearly stated Republican’s intentions to turn Medicare into a voucher program - “To those who say that would end Medicare as we know it, our answer is: we certainly hope so. Old fashioned Medicare isn’t very good.” - MSNBC, June 25th, 2003.

As if that was not enough, Republicans are now attempting to insert an amendment that would create gross inequalities in the service those Medicare recipients receive, based on their income. This Tuesday, Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, presented an amendment that would harm Seniors by denying high quality health care because of income disparities. Means testing would actually make prescription drugs less affordable for millions of seniors. The whole point of adding a prescription drug benefit is to make medicine more affordable for seniors and the disabled. Forcing seniors, who happen to have saved enough money to have interest income to take from their retirement money, goes against the whole purpose of passing a prescription drug bill.

  Besides forcing seniors into private HMOs, the Republican plan still does not make prescription drugs affordable for many Latino seniors. It also forces seniors to continue to pay high monthly premiums, but is cut off from receiving further benefits. One out of every six Latino Seniors live under the poverty line and one in every three Latinos does not have any health insurance. We must provide them with a substantial relief not a heavier burden.

Miraculous drugs should be a blessing, not a burden. So as Congress debates on how to resolve their differences on prescription drugs, we must not miss this opportunity to improve Medicare. We must renew the promise that America made to our seniors a generation ago. Medicare must be enhanced, not unraveled. 

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