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.
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
"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.
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
"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