Towson Times (MD)

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December 17, 2003



Cardin has dim view of Medicare bill


By Lauren Taylor


Congressman Ben Cardin, shown during a visit to the Bykota Senior Center earlier th
is
year, was at the center again last week to discuss his views of the Medicare reform bill
signed by President Bush


Marie Ruby of Towson considers herself one of the lucky ones.


"I don't spend as much on prescriptions as some of my friends," she said.

"I can get by
with what I have."


U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin isn't happy about the Medicare prescription drug bill President
George W. Bush has signed into law _ and neither are many of the senior citizens he
talked to last week at Bykota Senior Center.


"I won
't be able to afford it," Ruby said following Cardin's talk, in which the 3rd District
Democrat explained and put his own spin on the bill, calling it confusing, inadequate and
unfair.


"I have a lot of concerns," said Ray Clift, president of Senior Citize
ns Incorporated. "I've
got a lot to learn about it."


"Medicare is national health care for our seniors. This bill is not," Cardin told the seniors
Dec. 3.


He said provisions of the bill are not voluntary, do not lower drug costs, do not have
enough fina
ncing to attract widespread participation, have no guaranteed benefits and
do not establish a solid framework for future expansion of coverage.


"This bill does so much harm. It does nothing about drug costs and relies solely on
private benefits," Cardin s
aid. "It's going to be very difficult for the typical senior to figure
out (his or her) benefits."


Bykota center member Norman Hart said the bill is overwhelming for people. "I don't
think it'll do anything."


Cardin said the only solution is for Congress

to write more legislation to fix the bill.


"Don't accept the fact that this is finished business," he said. "Let's do better. Let's
correct the mistakes."


Ruby was all for that, but wasn't sure it will be feasible.


"Who knows what changes will come abo
ut?" she asked.


The new law, called the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization
Act of 2003, divided Congress. It passed the House Nov. 22 by a 220
-
215 vote and the
Senate three days later by a vote of 54
-
44.


Under the law, Medicare Par
t D was created to provide a prescription drug benefit
program for seniors. Beginning in 2006, there will be a $35 per month premium for
participants, which will increase annually.


Medicare will pay 75 percent of drug costs up to $2,250, after a $250 dedu
ctible. From
$2,250 to $5,100 in drug costs, Medicare will pay nothing, and seniors will continue to
pay their premium. Once seniors reach the $5,100 mark, Medicare picks up 95 percent
of their prescription costs.


"We need to cover your reasonable drug co
sts in the Medicare system," Cardin
emphasized, something he believes the bill fails to do.


He contended that under the new law:


* Prescription drug coverage is available only through private plans.


* The government can't negotiate with pharmaceutical c
ompanies to lower the cost of
drugs.


* Nearly 3 million retirees will lose coverage under the bill.


* It includes a "premium support" model that will lead to under
-
financing of traditional
Medicare.


* It establishes an artificial 45 percent cap on the u
se of general revenues that will lead
to payroll tax increases and provider cuts.


* It cuts federal payments for cancer care by $1 billion a year.


"I think this bill is unfair and the people will know it," Cardin said.


State Sen. Jim Brochin shared Card
in's sentiments for the bill.


"I think the bill stinks. I think it's confusing," Brochin said. "Once they understand it, I
think seniors will be disappointed."


Brochin is most concerned that the bill does not give the Department of Health and
Human Servi
ces the ability to negotiate the cost of prescriptions.


"HHS has to have the power to negotiate favorable rates like they do with other
countries," Brochin said. "This blatantly shows the lobbying effect of drug companies."


Because the program will vary
state
-
by
-
state, the impact it will have on Maryland's low
-
income seniors is still unclear, Cardin said.


But he predicted that it "will make things worse for seniors."


Cardin advised the audience to send e
-
mails, faxes or letters to Congress and the
presi
dent.


"You need to take care of your own needs based upon this new law," he said.


Cardin has worked for years on a Medicare prescription bill. Five of his initiatives were
included in the bill President Bush signed, including:


* Permitting a specialized

Medicare Advantage plans for seniors with special needs.


* Extending the Municipal Health Service plans through Dec. 31, 2006.


* Placing a two
-
year moratorium on outpatient rehabilitation caps.


* Waiving Part B late enrollment penalty fees for military

retirees through 2004.


* Requiring the General Accounting Office to study "physician boutique" practices, in
which doctors charge Medicare patients more.