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The bosses' prescription for reform

July 26, 2002 | Page 3

THE HEALTH care bosses bought some insurance of their own last month. Two days after the Republicans announced their plan for a Medicare prescription drug benefit for seniors, George W. Bush was the star at a Republican Party fundraiser at the posh Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. Executives from drug giants GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Merck were among the attendees who spent $250,000 a pop to get into the event.

They got what they paid for. The Republican prescription drug benefit proposal amounts to "what Pfizer says, goes." The plan relies on insurance companies--another big campaign contributor--to administer the benefits.

With the debate shifting this week to the Senate, Democrats are preparing to bash Republicans for this health care non-reform. "Watch out, grandma," said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). "GOP now stands for Get Old People."

But despite the rhetoric, the Democrats' proposal offers little relief. Seniors would have to make less than $11,000 a year for their prescriptions to be paid in full. Anyone above that level would have to spend out of pocket until coverage kicks in.

But the Democrats, too, have more important constituents to look after. Last weekend, 16 Democratic senators--including Tom Daschle, Joseph Biden and Hillary Rodham Clinton--flew corporate jets to an invitation-only retreat in Nantucket, Mass. Among the companies providing planes to ferry the Washington gasbags were drug giant Eli Lilly and insurance company AFLAC.

Republicans and Democrats alike complain that a more ambitious drug benefit would bankrupt the Medicare system and force the government to raise taxes. But the money exists to do far more.

According to a Harvard Medical School report published in the journal Health Affairs, the U.S. already spends more than any government in the world on health care--including those with national health insurance. The study looked at spending for government health programs like Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration--$548.7 billion in 1999--but also took into account tax subsidies for private coverage, which totaled $109.6 billion in 1999. Most of these subsidies go to the wealthiest Americans.

"We pay the world's highest health care taxes, but much of the money is squandered," said study co-author Dr. Steffie Woolhandler. "The wealthy get tax breaks. And HMOs and drug companies pocket billions in profits at the taxpayers' expense. But politicians claim we can't afford universal coverage…We already pay for it, but we don't get it."

We can't let the Republican and Democrats get away with calling the crumbs that they throw us "health care reform." We should call it what it is--an insult.

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