GOP go­ing easy on its own 2003 Medi­care drug ben­e­fit

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY RI­CARDO ALONSO-ZAL­DIVAR

It’s a mas­sive health care en­ti­tle­ment with un­funded fu­ture costs ex­ceed­ing $7 tril­lion. Many con­ser­va­tives are still up­set about the way it was rammed through Congress.

But when the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates were asked ear­lier this month whether they would re­peal the Medi­care drug ben­e­fit, all re­fused; af­ter all, Repub­li­cans cre­ated it.

GOP lead­ers say they want to pull the plug on the health care over­haul they call “Oba­macare,” but that law is ar­guably less a driver of fed­eral debt than the Medi­care drug plan they are de­fend­ing.

Debt and deficit are the fo­cus of the Repub­li­can Party as the 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign moves through the nom­i­nat­ing process. Yet the re­luc­tance of GOP can­di­dates to re­nounce a costly en­ti­tle­ment pro­gram that vot­ers like shows how pol­i­tics can come into play when cri­tiquing the fed­eral ledger.

Passed by a GOP-led Con- gress in 2003 un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush, the pre­scrip­tion pro­gram is im­mensely pop­u­lar with older peo­ple, re­li­able vot­ers who lately have been trend­ing Repub­li­can.

Medi­care re­cip­i­ents pay only one-fourth of the cost of the drug ben­e­fit. Be­cause there’s no ded­i­cated tax to sup­port the pro­gram, the rest of the money comes from the govern­ment’s gen­eral fund. That’s the same leaky pot used for de­fense, law en­force­ment, ed­u­ca­tion and other pri­or­i­ties. It’s reg­u­larly re­filled with bor­rowed dol­lars that bal­loon the deficit.

Although Mr. Obama’s health care law costs far more than the drug ben­e­fit, it’s paid for, at least on pa­per. It in­cludes un­pop­u­lar Medi­care cuts as well as tax in­creases on in­sur­ers, drug and med­i­cal de­vice com­pa­nies, up­per-in­come peo­ple, and even in­door tan­ning devo­tees.

Askedtwo weeks ago at the tea party de­bate whether they would re­peal the pre­scrip­tion pro­gram, GOP can­di­dates would hear noth­ing of it.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said he would not, even though he is con­cerned about its cost. Crack­ing down on waste and fraud might be the an­swer, he sug­gested.

“I wouldn’t re­peal it,” said former Mas­sachusetts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney. He said he would re­struc­ture Medi­care, but not for those now in the pro­gram or near­ing re­tire­ment.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul noted that he had voted against the pre­scrip­tion ben­e­fit, but said re­peal “sure wouldn’t be on my high list. I would find a lot of cuts [in] a lot of other places.” Bud­get hawks scoff. “I’m an equal-op­por­tu­nity critic here,” said David Walker, a former comptroller gen­eral of the watch­dog Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice. “I think the Repub­li­cans were ir­re­spon­si­ble for pass­ing the Medi­care pre- scrip­tion pro­gram in 2003, and I think the Democrats were ir­re­spon­si­ble for pass­ing” Mr. Obama’s health over­haul.

How big is the hole left by the pre­scrip­tion pro­gram? Over the next 75 years, its $7.5 tril­lion “un­funded obli­ga­tion” ex­ceeds the $6.7 tril­lion gap at­trib­ut­able to So­cial Se­cu­rity. Mr. Obama’s health care law, again on pa­per, is sup­posed to save the govern­ment money over the next decade.

“When they were de­sign­ing the new health care law, the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Medi­care pre­scrip­tion bill was very much in their minds,” said Robert Bixby, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Concord Coali­tion, a non­par­ti­san group ad­vo­cat­ing fis­cal dis­ci­pline. “They didn’t want to have an­other un­funded ex­pan­sion.”

Iron­i­cally, re­peal­ing Mr. Obama’s over­haul would take away the most im­por­tant im­prove­ment to the pro­gram since it was cre­ated. Mr. Obama’s law grad­u­ally elim­i­nates the dreaded cov­er­age gap known as the “dough­nut hole.” Mil­lions of peo­ple will each save thou­sands of dol­lars as a re­sult.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date and Texas Gov. Rick Perr y is against re­peal­ing the costly Medi­care drug ben­e­fit, which was passed by a Repub­li­can-led Congress in 2003 un­der GOP Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush.

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