Why AARP Says Yes to the Medicare Prescription Drug Bill

By James G. Parkel, AARP President

(AARP’s top volunteer leader)

While AARP has always been an independent, non-partisan advocacy group representing the interests of people over the age of 50, the popular perception is that we often side with the prevailing liberal view. That is why it may surprise many that we strongly support the centrist, bipartisan Medicare prescription drug legislation now before the full Congress. Our decision is not based on political calculation or allegiance to rigid ideology or favorite friends. And, in all candor, we wrestled with it long and hard before reaching a final decision. But, in the end, our support is based solely on what this will mean for our members and the health of all older Americans.

Every day, we receive letters and calls from our members recounting how the high cost of prescription drugs is hurting their financial and physical health. We believe that the legislation that has emerged after long negotiations will go a long way toward relieving these burdens for millions of older and disabled Americans and their families. Though far from perfect, the bill represents an historic breakthrough and an important milestone in the nation’s commitment to strengthen and expand health security for current and future beneficiaries.

After careful deliberation, AARP has decided to endorse this bill and to work vigorously for its bipartisan passage. There are many reasons for this support.

First, it will provide prescription drug coverage at little cost to those who need it most: people with low incomes, including those who depend on Social Security for all or most of their income. Second, it will provide substantial relief for those with very high drug costs, and will provide modest relief for millions more. Finally, we are pleased to see a substantial increase in protections for retiree benefits and that fairness is maintained by upholding the health benefit protections of the Age Discrimination and Employment Act.

On July 14th, in a letter to Congressional leadership, we outlined our concerns and expectations for a bill that we could support. Among them was our opposition to what is commonly known as “premium support,” a new structure requiring traditional Medicare to compete against private plans, which could very likely result in higher out of pocket costs for those who chose to stay in traditional Medicare. As a result of negotiations this was scaled back to be a demonstration, limited substantially in scope beginning in 2010 which exempts low income beneficiaries and limits any premium increases. This will not jeopardize traditional Medicare.

We also said that there must be a guaranteed drug plan available for all Medicare beneficiaries – regardless of where they live. This too has been accomplished. The government will step in to offer coverage in areas where there is not at least one private stand alone plan and one other PPO plan.

Of real concern to our members and millions of older and disabled Americans was the prospect that by gaining a Medicare benefit they might lose their current employer retiree coverage. We said that the final agreement should provide adequate incentives for employers to maintain their current plans. The proposed legislation includes an unprecedented $88 billion in subsidies to ensure that people who have good private coverage do not lose it.

We are also pleased that the bill contains cost containment measures to drive down the high cost of health care. The legislation provides for measures to help people who suffer from chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, hypertension, and congestive heart failure to manage those conditions better and prevent costly emergency room visits, hospitalizations and nursing home enrollments. It also promotes research that compares the effectiveness and safety of therapeutically similar drugs and makes the information available to doctors, pharmacists and consumers so they can choose the most effective drug at the best price.

During the long weeks of negotiation on a final Medicare prescription drug bill, an over-riding concern for AARP was that the integrity of the Medicare program be protected – and this bill does that.

To support passage of this legislation, we have launched a campaign to inform our members of its merits and urge Congress to send a final bill to the Presidents desk without further delay.

This legislation is not perfect, but millions of Americans cannot wait for perfect. They need help now. This is about getting vital help to people who need it – people whose high drug costs have become a heavy burden to them and their families. AARP will continue to fight for those people. And we will keep up the pressure, in Washington, in states, and in other ways to make drug costs more affordable and accessible.

Our support for this bill is generating criticism from both the left and right, including some of our traditional allies. But this is an issue too important to be held hostage to status quo thinking. As the late civil rights leader Whitney Young once said, “We have no permanent friends or enemies, just permanent interests.” Our interests are what is best for our members and all older Americans. In the coming days, we will do all we can to help the American people understand how important this legislation is to them and to convince Congress to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass it now.