Clinton plan is the wrong medicine

July 02, 1999|By Deborah A. Vondrak

WASHINGTON -- There's a story about a man who brought his car to the mechanic to have the air conditioning worked on. The mechanic told him to leave it with him and he'd take care of it.

A few days later the man came back and the mechanic happily reported that he had put in a new high performance engine and four new tires. The man was presented with a bill of $5,000 for his redone car. He then asked if the mechanic had fixed the air conditioning, which is what he wanted in the first place.

"No," the mechanic replied, "the parts were too tough to get so I decided with this new engine you could drive fast enough that the wind would cool you down."

I'm reminded of this story by the latest White House Medicare plan that purports to offer prescription drug coverage to seniors. It takes a stab at addressing the issue, but it's expensive and doesn't really solve the problem.

Of course, every one wants seniors to have access to prescription drugs -- in fact, both political parties are already positioning themselves on the issue well in advance of the 2000 elections.

The problem with the White House proposal is that it creates new problems without adequately addressing current ones. For example, the White House plan would:

Create the largest and least accountable "HMO" in the world, with government bureaucrats rather than doctors deciding which drugs would be covered and which would not.

Ask taxpayers to pay for government coverage for seniors who already have private coverage.

Create incentives for employers to stop offering prescription coverage to retirees. After all, if drug coverage is provided by the government why should companies offer it as well?

Create a massive new government entitlement program when both Social Security and Medicare are already at risk for the future.

Put further pharmaceutical innovation at risk. If government runs the largest part of the pharmaceutical business and rigidly controls prices, what incentives and capital reserves will remain for innovation?

Seniors can get drug coverage in other ways. most seniors already have prescription drug coverage through private plans.

Some senior advocates have suggested that the government should should simply offer a voucher for private plans for those without coverage -- this way seniors wouldn't be forced into a massive government bureaucracy.

Advocates for various minority groups also point out that some pharmaceutical products work better in certain populations than others and worry that a "one-size-fits-all" government plan that caters to the majority could leave their constituents out in the cold.

So what's the net effect of the White House plan? One, big business gets off the hook by eliminating any need to offer drug coverage to retirees.

Two, taxpayers foot the bill for a massive new entitlement program.

Three, research into life-saving new drugs is stopped cold.

Four, seniors who need coverage are shuttled into a massive government program where federal administrators decide which drugs will be covered and which drugs won't.

If you think that sounds like a prescription for disaster, you're right. Let's not force seniors out of their private plans and into a government-run nightmare. Prescription drug coverage for seniors is a good idea. Unfortunately, the White House plan is a good idea gone bad.

Congress should reject it and strive to forge a rational and effective alternative package that provides incentives to expand prescription coverage in ways that are tailored to meet most people's needs at reasonable prices.

That's best way to keep big government bureaucracy out of our medicine cabinet.

Deborah A. Vondrak is an independent journalist who covers and comments on consumer, health and legal affairs.

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