As our nation's senior citizens retire, we must ensure that they have both economic security and adequate health care. To this end, we must work to shore up the Social Security program and protect Medicare from privatization.
The Bush Administration wants to privatize Social Security. The recent history of the stock market tells us this is a bad idea. For many of our seniors, Social Security represents insurance against poverty in old age. Ensuring this program for future generations is vital in providing this type of economic foundation. This entails improving the way the government determines cost of living adjustments (COLAs) in Social Security payments.
Almost half the seniors in America earn less that $15,000 per year. One in eight seniors lives in poverty. The average monthly benefit is only $895. Too many senior Americans are forces to choose between buying prescription drugs or groceries. Utility bills continue to climb. COLAs are too low because the government's formula underestimates the impact of inflation on America's seniors. The formula includes such items as computers when seniors are more likely to spend their money on prescription drugs. The price of computers is going down, but the price of prescription drugs is increasing rapidly. The government should calculate the COLA based on what seniors are buying in the real world.
The Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003, which permits the importation of approved pharmaceutical drugs for personal use from other industrialized nations, including Canada, Switzerland, Japan and the European Union, was vital to keep costs of prescription drugs at a minimum. Consumer groups strongly supported the bill, many due to their concerns about the high cots of prescription drugs. To ensure consumer safety, it requires that all prescription drug makers use counterfeit-resistant technology or individually test each shipment. Many of our seniors have had to travel to Canada to buy drugs for half the price for which they are sold here at home. With a true prescription drug benefit under Medicare, these unnecessary measures would not be needed. Nonetheless, the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives refused to provide meaningful prescription drug coverage; supporters of lower drug prices were left no choice but to support reimportation.
This bill is fundamentally flawed for several reasons. First, it does not provide substantial prescription drug benefit for seniors, it leaves gaps in coverage, and it saddles seniors with high uncapped monthly premiums. Unless seniors are provided with a substantial drug benefit, they at least deserve the opportunity to purchase imported medications at lower costs in a safe, regulated system.
Medicare represents a covenant between the U.S. government and its citizens, acting as an important lifeline for seniors in our country.
The Medicare bill that passed Congress in November 2003 does not pay for seniors' prescription drugs now: in fact, the major provisions of this legislation will not take effect for three years. The claim is that the bill will help seniors with their drugs costs. However, not only does the bill fail to provide significant help until 2006, it also does nothing to lower the exorbitant prices of prescription drugs. This bill contains several shortcomings:
(1) The government is prohibited from using its buying power to negotiate lower prices for America's 30 million seniors. I objected strongly to this provision because I believe strongly that something must be done to bring down the cost of prescription drugs in America.
(2) The government can prohibit seniors in America from reimporting cheaper drugs from Canada and other industrialized countries, where prices are lower by a half or even two thirds.
(3) The traditional Medicare program would be phased out in 2010 for almost seven million seniors: these Medicare recipients would no longer receive a defined benefit plan. Instead, they would get a voucher (called a premium subsidy) for use in buying health care insurance in the private market. Although Republican proponents say this part of the plan will be limited at first, I am concerned that such a privatization scheme, once begun, could spread nationwide.