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What The Media Tell Americans About Free Enterprise

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Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Volume 8, Number 18

Biased, Incomplete Network Coverage of Candidates’ Drug Plans

Is there a "crisis" over high prescription drug costs, and would the benefits of a new government program be worth the expense to taxpayers? Those were two questions that weren’t asked last week when the three broadcast networks compared the two presidential candidates’ plans to spend billions on a new entitlement program for America’s senior citizens. Instead, the correspondents presented anecdotes that seemed designed to fuel the notion that yet another big government program is absolutely indispensable.

"It is one of the crucial issues for Campaign 2000," asserted Tom Brokaw at the start of his Nightly News broadcast on September 5, "a critical question for millions of older Americans: Who will pay for their prescription drugs, they keep asking."

Over on the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather spun Bush as a reluctant reformer: "With health care one of the top concerns of voters, and under attack for being too slow and vague, Republican George Bush today at last gave details of his plan for shoring up Medicare and for helping older Americans pay for prescription drugs." At last.

Bush proposed a prescription drug program that is somewhat cheaper and more market-oriented than Gore’s: $48 billion in federal funding to states to pay for prescriptions for poor senior citizens starting next year, and $110 billion in additional funding to modernize Medicare to eventually allow recipients to choose among competing private insurance programs. Gore’s program offers to pay 50% of drugs costs for all seniors, with additional subsidies for low-income Medicare recipients. Gore also wishes to extend Medicare to individuals between 55-65, providing them with a 25% tax credit to help defray the cost of the buy-in.

Apparently, parsimony with taxpayer dollars is no longer a virtue — at least not when it’s juxtaposed against stories of individual suffering. As they have all year, the networks showcased elderly persons with extremely high drug costs to document the problem. Showing up on one couple’s doorstep, CBS’s Bill Whitaker explained that "In this house, [the debate over prescription drugs] is not a campaign issue, it’s a matter of survival."

Whitaker’s piece included pleas from David Welsh ("We need help from somebody") and his wife Esther ("Somebody better help us") and recounted their pharmacy bills. "Esther and David Welsh spend more than $300, almost 20% of their income, each month on prescription drugs for his high blood pressure, for her cancer treatment." Mr. Welsh told CBS, "If it continues at this rate, nobody will be able to afford medication."

But how typical are the Welshes? The Evening News didn’t say, and neither did ABC’s World News Tonight when they profiled Sue Kling on the same evening. Reporter Jackie Judd explained that "Kling takes seven different prescription drugs that keep her lungs and heart working. They cost $500 a month, $6,000 a year." Judd also reported that the Klings currently live on $22,000 a year. Not knowing which private insurer the couple would select under the Bush plan, Judd couldn’t calculate their projected benefit, but figured that Mrs. Kling would save $2,200 under the Gore plan, still spending $3,800 of her own money.

Although neither network explained whether their profiled subjects were actually representative of the typical Medicare recipient, Investor’s Business Daily did the research and found that "two-thirds of seniors have some sort of prescription drug insurance" already. They also pointed out that 20 states also offer drug benefits to seniors, and that drug companies provide free medicine to an additional 2.4 million senior citizens who don’t have drug insurance.

"Gore’s plan would cover all the drug costs of a senior living in poverty," the newspaper wrote in an August 30 editorial, a week before the details of Bush’s plan were released. "But given that most poor seniors already get drugs, his $253 billion, 10-year plan seems like overkill." But "overkill" was not a word heard on the networks the following week, nor was the notion that Gore’s rhetoric has been contradictory — while his insistence on universal coverage would mean taxing working families to pay for drugs for millionaires, the Democratic nominee rails against tax cuts that includes benefits for those same millionaires.

In covering the release of Bush’s plan, no network reporter questioned whether it actually spends too much taxpayer money. NBC’s Claire Shipman dutifully reported that "Gore aides insist today that his prescription drug plan is much more comprehensive" than Bush’s, while CBS’s Rather solemnly passed along word that "the Gore camp branded it too little, too late and, quote, inadequate."

Another worry not expressed by anyone at the networks is whether the federal government will intrude into the market and start pressuring drug companies to keep prices low once Medicare begins picking up a large part of the tab. What makes drugs expensive is not their manufacturing costs; it’s laboratory research, clinical trials and a lengthy FDA approval process that racks up the expenses. Heavy-handed action to force costs lower would almost certainly mean fewer new drugs would be available in the future.

In a September 5 column, the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson reported that "over the years, insurance coverage of prescription drug costs for Americans has improved steadily," with out-of-pocket costs dropping from 66% in 1980 to just 27% in 1998. Noting that, thanks to the development of new drugs and better insurance coverage, prescription drug sales have soared in recent years, Samuelson wrote that "this addiction makes Medicare drug coverage politically irresistible. But it needs to be done with care."

"If it’s too generous, it will encourage overuse of drugs. If prices are regulated too heavily, it may deter drug development. And any new drug benefit needs to be coupled with an overhaul of Medicare to control total costs. George W. Bush has mainly tried to skirt these questions," continued Samuelson, who’s not a conservative. "But Gore’s rhetoric and program, aimed mainly to buy votes, make honest debate difficult."

Voters are choosing a President to help establish public policy, and the networks claim for themselves a role in educating citizens. If they’re serious, they should place the teary anecdotes they’ve so far broadcast in perspective, and they should ask the tough questions that voters themselves might ask. So far, however, neither candidate has been pressed to justify depriving working-class and middle-class taxpayers of billions of dollars in order to create a "universal" solution to a problem that affects only a minority of seniors.

Rich Noyes


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