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WHAT WE THINK
Republicans push for legislation to bleed Medicare
A new attack disguised as "reform"

October 31, 2003 | Page 3

IT'S CALLED bait and switch. Congressional negotiators are working on the final version of legislation that would expand the government's Medicare health care program for the elderly to include a prescription drug benefit. But Republican leaders are pushing a "compromise" that would bleed the program dry.

First, the complicated formula for determining payments for prescription drugs would still require seniors to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for their medicines. According to an analysis by the AFL-CIO, Medicare premiums would jump by as much as 50 percent--but half of all seniors would save nothing on their drug costs. Second, as a sop to the pharmaceutical industry, the legislation could ban Americans from buying drugs from Canada, where identical drugs are sold at huge discounts.

Last--and most significantly--the Republican "compromise" measure would force Medicare to compete with private health plans by 2010. In other words, under the guise of a "reform" that adds a partial prescription drug benefit, the politicians are moving ahead with their long-held plans to privatize Medicare.

Health care experts say this would simply encourage the wealthiest and healthiest seniors to leave Medicare, turning it into an underfunded and stingy program for the poorest and sickest. So far, Democratic leaders in Congress have balked at the provision to require competition with private plans.

But given their record, no one should put their faith in the Democrats. After all, it was leading liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) who helped Bush and the Republicans get this far--by backing the White House's initial version of the Medicare legislation.

The politicians of both parties assume that the U.S. has "the best health care system in the world," as they never tire of claiming--and that it merely needs a little government help to cover "gaps" in the system, like coverage for the elderly and poor. In reality, the U.S. has the most expensive and bloated system in the world. It covers fewer people at four times the cost that similar advanced industrial countries spend to cover their entire populations.

And the situation in the U.S. is getting worse, not better. Fully 44 million people are without health insurance--an increase of 2 million in 2002 alone--according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And a recent study showed that one-third of the uninsured work for large U.S. companies. Even for those who have insurance, skyrocketing costs have led employers to try to shove more of the burden onto workers. That's why health care is the key issue in two major strikes in southern California--among grocery workers and Los Angeles transit workers.

So it's not true that there are only a few gaps in an otherwise healthy system. The whole system is sick--and getting sicker.

It's a crime that in a country as rich as the U.S., millions don't have access to health care. And it's a crime that the politicians are trying to use promised reforms as an opportunity to further enrich the health care bosses.

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