Medicare bill could be good if cards played right

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 28, 2003

Tribune editorial staff

The future of Medicare - discount drug cards in particular - has been a hot topic in the United States.

Earlier this week, Congress approved a Medicare bill which president Bush is expected to sign. Included in the bill would be discount drug cards the Bush administration says will reduce out-of-pocket drug expenses for older Americans by 15 to 25 percent. Participants would pay $30 a year to join.

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Proponents of the legislation say enrolees will save money because sponsors would be able to negotiate discounts with drug makers and pharmacies. These cards would be different from current discount drug cards because a Medicare client would sign up for just one card, which would give those offering the card, such as insurance companies, wholesale and retail pharmacies and pharmacy benefit managers, leverage in negotiating deals.

For low-income people without drug coverage, the cards would function as prescription drug debit cards, with the government providing $600 a year to defray drug expenses. These savings could bee seen as early as April 1, 2004.

While critics say the legislation offers little improvement over existing discount drug cards, we would have to disagree. Since sponsors would be able to use enrolees' purchasing power to negotiate better deals with suppliers. For this reason alone, drug makers and pharmacies will have to take notice.

Is the bill perfect? No, it is not. Until the federal government takes an active role in keeping drug costs down, discounts will not mean as much, especially when inflation hits.

In order to really take care of the needs of the nation's senior citizens, legislators must not only provide them with discounts, but also make sure drug companies are not overcharging for the medications they produce.

This bill would be a significant improvement for older Americans, but it will not solve the problem of overpriced medications.