Happy 90th Birthday, Dad

By:  Mitch McConnell
Date: Nov. 23, 2003
Location: Washington, DC

HAPPY 90TH BIRTHDAY, DAD

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, finally, after 38 years, Medicare will finally give our most frail citizens help in acquiring the miracle of modern medicine: prescription drugs. They save lives, but they are not cheap.

After decades of talking, while our seniors waited, tomorrow we vote yes or no on a Medicare prescription drug benefit. It is now or never for our seniors. And for their drug benefit, this is the bill and this is the time.

On one side stand 40 million seniors, the American Medical Association, the AARP, and hundreds of other citizen groups. On the other side stand some Senate Democrats itching to kill this bill. Do not be fooled by those who think we can do something better at some point later. We are already 38 years late, and this is as close as we will ever come.

So for our seniors to get a Medicare drug benefit, it is now or never. Incredibly, there are those in this Senate who say never. They plan to filibuster the Medicare drug benefit or use procedural measures designed to do the same thing as a filibuster-kill the bill.

Let me repeat that. Some of our Democratic colleagues are trying to kill this bill. For 38 years there has been no prescription drug benefit, none. Now, when it comes time to actually pass a drug benefit, some of our Democratic colleagues are filibustering. That is truly astonishing.

Now, we will hear a lot more debate about whether there is too much or too little Medicare prescription drugs. And we will hear a lot of talk that there is too much or too little reform to preserve Medicare.

Mr. President, I believe we do more for Medicare prescription drugs than most could have ever expected. We do more to preserve Medicare for the future than most presently expect.

Before I discuss the reforms to preserve Medicare, I would like to focus on the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. The facts are that we provide $400 billion for a Medicare prescription drug benefit over a decade, about a third more than our Senate colleagues proposed just 2 years ago-a third more than was proposed just 2 years ago-and one and a half times more than President Clinton proposed for a Medicare drug benefit.

This unprecedented investment in our seniors' health translates into an incredible amount of relief for our seniors.

Back home, in my State of Kentucky, for example, there are about 650,000 seniors who will share in that relief. So what does this relief mean to them? The first comfort is that all 650,000 Kentucky seniors-whether rich, poor, or in between-will never again face the fear of being wiped out-completely wiped out-by catastrophic drug costs.

Under this plan, Medicare will cover a minimum of 95 percent of all catastrophic prescription drug costs.

Next, all Kentucky seniors currently paying full retail drug prices will be able to cut their prescription drug costs by an estimated 50 percent or more once they enroll in this new plan.

For those 235,000 Kentucky seniors with low incomes-low-income seniors-they will never again have to choose between food on the table or medicine in the cabinet-never again. They will get 95 percent to 99 percent of their prescription drug costs fully covered. None of those 235,000 Kentuckians will pay more than $2 for generic drugs or $5 for brand-name drugs, and most will pay even less than that.

Another 56,000 Kentuckians, with moderate incomes, will get assistance with their premiums, deductibles, and coinsurance.

While the full drug plan will not start until 2006, all Kentuckians can benefit from an immediate helping hand thanks to the Medicare prescription drug discount card available as soon as April of next year. This prescription drug benefit card will be available by April of next year. Through group purchasing power and negotiated prices, this card can save seniors between 10 and 25 percent of their drug costs, starting, as I indicated, just next April-right around the corner.

Finally, also starting next April, about 123,000 low-income Kentucky seniors will be credited up to $600 on that same prescription drug card to help tide them over until the full plan takes effect.

So this is real relief, and it is just around the corner. But we did not just give Kentucky seniors that real relief, we also gave them real choices.

Today, Medicare offers no prescription drug benefit and few choices in health care. All that is offered is the traditional hospital and doctor benefit, with a limited managed care option called Medicare+Choice.

Tomorrow, Medicare also could provide seniors a prescription drug benefit and almost unlimited choices in health care. If we act now, every senior on Medicare will soon have the choice of two prescription drug benefit plans, along with a Federal backup.

But if not now, then when will seniors get that benefit? Or, if we act now, every Medicare senior can choose from a variety of Medicare+Choice plans, with a full drug benefit added. But if we do not offer that to them now, when will we offer it to them?

Another choice is every Medicare senior can choose from three or even more preferred provider organizations. But if we do not offer this choice now, when will we? Or, if we act now, every Medicare senior can get help to maintain their current employer-based drug plan. But if we do not offer that now, when are we going to offer it? When would be a better day than now? Or every Medicare senior can do nothing at all and keep exactly what they have today. Every senior, I repeat, can stay in exactly the same coverage they are in today, if they choose to.

That is a lot of freedom and a lot of choices-much like those which Federal employees and Members of Congress enjoy today. But if we do not offer these choices now, when are we going to offer them?

This bill provides an excellent prescription drug benefit, a great array of choices to get that drug benefit, and a host of new benefits, such as preventive care, disease management, and comprehensive chronic care.

But after all we did for prescription drugs, what did we do to secure Medicare's future, you might ask? The reforms may not have gone as far as some would have liked, but the good news-the paramount good news-is for our Medicare system, a little reform can go a long way.

So how far can it go?

When a scam artist can make $7 million by selling gauze pads that cost a penny but sell them to Medicare for as much as $7, a little reform can go a long way.

When a shakedown artist can bilk Medicare for as much as $300,000 by allegedly providing health care services to a deceased patient-I repeat, a deceased patient-a little reform can stop a real abuse. When two rented mailboxes and a beeper is all one fugitive needed to scam Medicare out of $2.1 million, a little reform can go a long way. When Medicare imposes 110,000 pages of regulations, a tower of paperwork 6 feet tall that requires a regiment of clerks to handle, a little reform can mean real savings. When estimates suggest that as much as $33 billion a year is wasted in Medicare and Medicaid-$33 billion a year in waste in Medicare and Medicaid-a little reform can do a lot of good.

When computational errors at Medicare cost $4.5 billion a year, when $2.2 billion is paid out annually to phony businesses, when $23 billion is annually overpaid to doctors, hospitals, and other health care providers, and when study after study shows not just poor business practices but rampant and outright fraud, waste, and abuse throughout Medicare, costing tens of billions of dollars a year, year after year, decade after decade, then a little reform can do enormous good.

The reform in this bill is real. We infuse real competition, market forces, and private sector dynamics to provide the best health care at the best price for our seniors. A wide array of health care providers, insurers, plans, and organizations will compete to offer the best health care at the best price, and seniors will be free to choose the best plan for themselves.

With all of these choices, with all of this competition, ordinary people providing health care across this land are soon going to do a very extraordinary thing. They are going to figure out how to provide seniors all the quality health care they want without all the waste, fraud, and abuse in Medicare that no one wants.

And who will benefit? Of course, our seniors will benefit. And so, too, will our children. When our seniors get a quadcane such as this one for $15, like the Veterans Administration pays-the VA pays $15 for this quadcane, but Medicare pays $44 for the very same cane-stopping this kind of abuse is going to save our parents and our children. When our seniors get a catheter for a dollar, as most Federal Employee Health Plans pay, instead of the $12 Medicare typically pays, our parents and children both win.

These potential savings are not conjecture. This is not guesswork. We know that under imperfect-if not hostile-rules and regulations, the health care providers in the Medicare+Choice Program were able to give our seniors all the services of traditional Medicare and wring out enough savings to provide seniors an average drug benefit of about $857 a year. With this bill, the power to convert Medicare waste into Medicare benefits, which we only saw a flash of in the Medicare+Choice plans, will now be fully unleashed.

There was always a riddle to the Medicare drug benefit. That riddle was: Could we help our parents without harming our children? Could we add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare today yet still preserve Medicare benefits tomorrow? The answer to the riddle was always reform. In this bill, we have done enough reform to rein in the waste I have touched upon earlier.

To my colleagues on this side, I would agree there could be more reform in Medicare than we have in this bill. But there can be no reform of Medicare without this bill. We could have more reform than we have in this bill, but we will have no reform without this bill. The reforms are more than a first step. They reflect a bold, new direction. That new direction for Medicare flows from the market-based incentives in this bill that I believe will do more good to reform Medicare than our colleagues can possibly imagine.

Our colleagues need to recall that every time we have placed our faith in the ability of free market forces to provide for our people, our Nation has been richly rewarded. When we infused our energy markets with market competition, the gas shortages and economic stagnation of the 1970s were replaced by energy stability and two decades of solid economic growth. When we reformed Welfare-to-Work, we relied on the private sector to provide the best welfare program man had ever devised-a job. And the welfare reform of 1996 has worked better than we could ever have imagined.

Today we tap those same forces that saved our economic security and improved the well-being of the neediest to save Medicare for our children and improve Medicare for our parents.

I believe this new drug benefit will meet the needs of our seniors. I believe the reforms will meet the needs of our children. Now is the time to act. Now is not the time to filibuster. Our seniors deserve better than that from us. Thirty-eight years of waiting is long enough. We must not filibuster and kill the bill providing a prescription drug benefit for 40 million seniors.

Doctors, hospitals, and seniors have all said this Medicare prescription drug plan is the right plan at the right time. They all strongly support this. We should support it, too. Our seniors, the greatest generation, have been there for us. Now we need to be there for them.

I yield the floor.