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Should Americans surrender their freedom for government drugs?

By Richard E. Ralston
web posted September 15, 2003

A Congressional conference committee is now attempting to reach a compromise between a bad Medicare prescription drug bill passed by the House and a worse drug bill passed by the Senate. The only possible outcome is something awful -- and President Bush, who is pressuring Republicans to compromise, has pledged to sign practically any bill to emerge.

Citizens who care about their health, their finances, and their freedom can only hope that the Senate and House of Representatives reject whatever comes out of the conference committee.

Both bills propose the largest expansion of government in nearly 40 years. With the federal budget running the largest deficit in history, even the grossly underestimated additional cost of $400 billion over ten years is an outrageous burden on taxpayers. If both Social Security and Medicare are in crisis over the prospect of millions of Baby Boomers, this Medicare drug bill can only make matters much worse. Yet this is the least important fault of this legislation.

Despite being among the richest generations of older humans over age 65 in history, retired Americans, according to those who favor Medicare drug subsidies, can't afford prescription drugs. There's no doubt drug costs are rising, but where is the evidence that most seniors have to choose between drugs and dinner?

On the contrary, the last 30 years have seen the most phenomenal growth in new drugs in history -- drugs that improve both the quality and the length of life. People are living longer, better lives due to the brilliant scientific breakthroughs produced by U.S. pharmaceutical firms.

But Bush and the bill's Congressional proponents apparently believe that drug companies -- confronted by price controls and new Medicare regulations dictating which drugs doctors can prescribe for seniors -- will continue to spend $22 billion on research and development.

The biggest bait and switch lies in the delusion that the plan will actually pay for prescriptions. Bill proponents don't say much about higher Medicare premiums or bigger co-payments, or rising deductibles, or restrictive formularies, which include many low cost drugs --- but not the drugs doctors prefer to prescribe. Your doctor will continue to recommend what you need. The government will decide what you get.

Some people do have a hard time paying for their prescriptions. They would have an easier time if they were not taxed for the dollars they spend on prescriptions and free market reforms, such as tax-free medical savings accounts, are more likely to help than a handout with strings attached.

But the fact that some people have a tough time paying for drugs does not make it right for the government to force everyone to use and pay for government-run health care. Someone's need is not a claim on everyone else's income. If you have trouble paying for your prescriptions now, just wait until you have to pay for everyone's prescriptions.

The politicians -- from virtually every Congressman to President Bush, who has vowed to sign almost any Medicare expansion bill regardless of cost or merit -- have it half-right. The way Americans buy prescription drugs -- indeed, the way Americans finance their use of the medical profession -- desperately needs an expansion.

But politicians, as usual, have the drug issue exactly backwards: what ought to be expanded is not government-controlled medicine. What ought to be expanded is freedom - the freedom to choose, pay for and control one's health care. Congress and the White House ought to embrace the concept of choice in medicine and kill the Medicare prescription drug bill.

Richard E. Ralston is Executive Director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine.

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