Can you remember the last time a major government program was more popular and cost less than was promised? Some might think that such a feat is impossible, yet that is exactly what the new Medicare prescription drug benefit achieved.
Four out of five seniors enrolled in the plan say they are satisfied, and why wouldn't they be? Monthly premiums, which were expected to cost $38, average $22 per month and are available for as little as $18 a month throughout Kentucky. The new Medicare drug benefit is honored at 55,000 neighborhood pharmacies nationwide. Those who prefer home delivery can arrange for that, too. And importantly, seniors have access to nearly every drug approved by the FDA.
Yet despite this success, many of the politicians who opposed creating the Medicare drug benefit now want to change it by requiring the government to "negotiate" drug prices. They point to the Veterans Administration as the model of choice.
Well, let's look at the VA system they wish to emulate. In the VA plan, the government sets a price on drugs that it can get at the cheapest rate and limits access to those it can't. As a result, the VA benefit excludes three out of four drugs available to Medicare beneficiaries, including some of the most innovative treatments for arthritis, high cholesterol, breast cancer and other ailments. Retired veterans who want popular drugs like Crestor, Humira or Revlimid have to go elsewhere or go without. It also takes three years for new drugs to make it onto the VA's list, and enrollees can only directly fill prescriptions at about 350 government-run facilities nationwide. No wonder more than one million retired veterans have signed up for Medicare in the last year alone.
Why the difference between the programs? Unlike the VA benefit, the Medicare drug benefit utilizes a number of private-sector drug plans that were already negotiating prices with drug makers in other markets. These plans must then compete with each other to provide the best value for seniors.
The savings flow not just to seniors, but to every taxpaying American. The program has already cost $7 billion less than originally expected. It is now projected to cost another $265 billion - or nearly 30 percent - less over the next 10 years.
All of which brings us back to the Medicare proposals that Congress recently considered to scrap the competitive pricing mechanism that has made the Medicare drug benefit so popular. This, despite the findings of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office which found that fixing prices won't lead to lower costs -- just fewer options.
For the first time in Medicare's history, more than a half-million Kentucky seniors have access to prescription drug coverage. The overwhelming majority are happy with this coverage. So why would we change a plan that is working for Kentucky's seniors, in favor of one that won't save money, threatens seniors' choices, and limits their healthcare options? The answer is simple - we should not.
By Senator Mitch McConnell
McConnell is the Senate Republican Leader and only the second Kentuckian to lead his party in the U.S. Senate.