For Ms. J, a resident of Macomb County, Mich., the prescription drug program is a nightmare. Now in her 70s, she and her husband live on Social Security and a small pension from his work. His company went belly-up so he lost his health care benefits. But with discount drug cards, they've been able to buy medicine for about $135 a month.
Now under the new drug program, their discount cards won't work — and the deductible of the plans that cover their drugs costs $250 to $500. She's worked with her pharmacy, gone to a special briefing at the school, spent Christmas with her computer-literate daughter going through the alternatives. And in every one, she'll end up paying more than she does now.
The new, privatized prescription drug program is a mess. Hundreds of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens have found themselves cut off from prescriptions paid for by Medicaid and unable to obtain essential medicines. Millions of seniors find themselves stupefied by a blizzard of insurance company offerings that are difficult to judge.
Many, in the years ahead, are likely to find themselves cut off when the drugs they need change and aren't covered by the plan they chose, or when the plan they chose decides it can profit more by dropping the drug they need. And perhaps worst of all, the sick who need the most costly drugs will find themselves in the "hole in doughnut" — above the threshold where their drugs are covered and faced with staggering out-of-pocket costs. This from a program that will cost Americans over $500 billion over the next 10 years.
Why is this program so bad? Our most vulnerable citizens are paying the costs of Washington corruption. This is a drug program written by and for the insurance companies and the drug companies by compromised and compliant Bush political appointees and Republican legislators.
Hearing about the lavish lifestyle of Republican boss Tom DeLay, or the cynical corruption of ex-Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, with his choir-boy looks, many Americans dismiss congressional corruption as an insider's game — Washington rot that goes on all the time.
But it is the vulnerable that pay the costs of corruption. And the prescription drug program is a perfect example. Reformers called for the program to be set up under Medicare. That would have enabled Medicare to use its purchasing power to negotiate lower prices for drugs, the way the U.S. Department Veterans' Administrations does. A new study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that the savings would be such that, under the current budget, all the drug needs of seniors could be covered, with some billions in savings sent back to lower the deficit.
The program shovels billions in subsidies to the insurance companies to encourage them to offer competing plans for seniors — and then actually prohibits Medicare from negotiating a better price for seniors.
Thomas Scully, Bush's appointee to run Medicare, was a hospital industry lobbyist before taking office. While in office, Scully got a "waiver" that allowed him to negotiate his future job — as a lobbyist for the drug companies — while still in office. So not surprisingly, Scully misled the Congress about the cost of the bill and threatened to fire his chief actuary when he wanted to tell the Congress the truth about the cost projections.
And the Republican committee chair in charge of ushering the bill through was Rep. Billy Tauzin. Once the bill passed, Tauzin retired to take a million-dollar salary as president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry's big-bucks lobby.
Seniors are paying the price in confusion, catastrophic drug cutoffs, escalating drug prices. And American taxpayers pay for the costliest health system in the world, with the worst health results in the industrial world.
So when people say the stench in Washington doesn't matter, take another whiff. It is time to clean out those stables.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. is founder and president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.