Sunday, March 28, 2004

Cost of new Medicare law overstated

I read with amazement your recent editorial about what you've called the "Medicare prescription scandal." The piece was so filled with mistakes and errors about the new Medicare prescription drug law that I feel compelled to set the record straight for your readers.

Your editorial states, "It's generally accepted now that the new drug entitlement will cost at least $534 billion over 10 years." As a matter of fact, when the legislation passed last November, the Congressional Budget Office - which provides Congress with nonpartisan cost estimates on pending legislation - estimated that the Medicare bill would cost $395 billion over 10 years. This is actually less than the amount that Congress had budgeted for the proposal and represents a responsible step toward better health care for almost 675,000 Medicare beneficiaries in Kentucky. In a letter to congressional leaders in February, the budget office reiterated its estimates on the cost of the new Medicare law. Thare has been some irresponsible speculation in the press about the cost of the new law based on cost calculations by the Bush administration's Office of Management and Budget. Those who oppose the new Medicare law have seized upon those higher estimates to try to undermine our efforts to implement the new law and to turn this important achievement into a political hot potato in this election year.

This is just plain wrong and either shows a shocking misunderstanding of how Congress works or is outright deceptive. Under federal statute, Congress must rely on the Congressional Budget Office's figures when it comes to estimating the future costs of legislation. The Office of Management and Budget and the administration play no formal role when it comes to determining costs, and Congress is not allowed to rely on these numbers - whether they are helpful or detrimental to passing legislation.

For opponents of the new Medicare drug law to now cry crocodile tears and complain about the cost of the bill and cite a whole new set of figures is irrelevant to the debate and nothing more than a sham to change the subject away from what we need to be focusing on right now - putting the new law into place.

As part of this, I was equally amazed that your editorial failed to mention anything about what all this money is being spent for - helping Medicare beneficiaries better afford their prescription drugs. During my almost 18 years in Congress, I have heard about this issue perhaps more than any other. And for years Congress has talked and talked about doing something.

Well, we finally did. It's a good law that is certainly a step in the right direction. Most important, it is targeted at the poorest of the poor and gives the most help to low-income seniors with incomes up to 150 percent of the poverty level - about $13,500 for individuals and $18,000 for couples. In Kentucky, it will bring help more than 145,000 seniors who before had no drug coverage at all.

This was my primary focus in helping to write the new law, and I worked particularly hard to make sure these folks got the best benefit we could offer. The new law also adds some new preventive benefits to Medicare, and takes steps to get cheaper generic drugs to market faster.

Finally, your editorial commends Alan Greenspan for urging Congress "not to leave trimming future benefits to the next generation." In fact, it was Greenspan who headed a 1983 commission that looked at the long-term future of the other cornerstone entitlement program, Social Security, and had a chance to recommend permanent solutions to the challenges that program faces.

However, Greenspan's commission failed to address the long-term issues facing Social Security and supported a temporary, Band-Aid approach that only forces us again in the future to grapple with further changes to the program. To now listen to Greenspan about the future of entitlement program spending in Medicare or Social Security makes me wonder why he did not follow his own advice more than 20 years ago.

In conclusion, your editorial made a number of basic mistakes and failed to fully explain some important facts behind the new Medicare drug law. Your readers deserve better.

Sen. Jim Bunning, who resides in Southgate, is a Republican representing Kentucky.

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