This change is worth the hassles

November 28, 2005|By PETER A. BROWN

Orlando, Fla. -- The government has just begun the largest expansion ever of a federal program to help Americans, and all anyone can do is complain that it isn't perfect. This "can't see the forest for the trees" mentality is a sad commentary on our national psyche.

It also reflects the general wariness of change that is part of human nature and is unfortunately fueled by the media's bias to always accentuate the negative.

Sign-ups have begun for the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit, which is now estimated to cost $724 billion in the next decade. That amounts to an average annual cost for just this part of Medicare of more than $10 billion over the entire budgets for the U.S. departments of State, Commerce and Justice.

Given the size of the drug program, you might expect the unhappiness would come from fiscal conservatives who question the wisdom of such a large increase in government spending - especially on the elderly, who are already the largest recipients of federal largess.

Yet those voices are few and far between, probably because it is politically incorrect to point out how skewed government priorities are toward the elderly and away from the young.

No, the loudest complaints are that the program is just too complicated and that it requires people to make decisions about what is best for them instead of just having a one-size-fits-all approach in which the government would choose.

The notion that it's just too complicated for seniors to figure out is horse hockey. These are many of the same people who conquered hunger during the Great Depression and Hitler's era.

Yes, I know that in many states, recipients must choose from scores of plans. But how exactly is that different from the same folks choosing what make and model of car to buy?

I just don't understand the mentality of those who have been offered a big-bucks gift from Uncle Sam and want someone else to decide exactly how large the present will be.

I always thought freedom of choice was a good thing.

Of course there will be some not able to make that choice, but the nursing homes in which they reside or their children can do it for them.

Change always comes with its hassles, but the question is whether, in the end, it will be worth the hassles it may create. This isn't anywhere near a close call.

The prescription-drug program was approved after many years of partisan wrangling in an effort to help seniors with the escalating price of prescription drugs. They have become a much larger share of medical costs as biotechnology has found ways to cure and treat illnesses for which there was previously no help or required surgery.

The dispute that held up approval of drug coverage centered on whether it should be a federal-run program, as the Democrats wanted, or reflect the Republican vision of consumers picking among private companies to find the best coverage for themselves. The latter won, mostly because of the understandable fear of creating another bureaucracy and the belief that giving beneficiaries the ability to choose would serve them better and save money through competition.

That approach makes sense. In fact, the projected premiums that most beneficiaries will pay -the poor will pay nothing - have dropped because of competition from the various companies wanting a piece of the action.

Given that, the buzz about the new program - how tough it is to ask Grandma and Grandpa to decide on a plan - seems way, way overdone.

Negativity is the stock in trade of journalism. We don't sell newspapers by running stories about how wonderful everything is. But sometimes we in the media and the public ought to step back and put things in perspective.

Americans now have a federal program to help millions who in the past were financially strained to pay for their medicines. This will end the demagogic campaigning by some politicians who claimed that many elderly people had to choose between food and medicines.

Who in their right mind can say that what we have now is not much better than the nothing that existed previously?

Perspective is a good thing.

Peter A. Brown is a colunmnist for the Orlando Sentinel. His e-mail is

Columnist Cynthia Tucker is on vacation.

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