The warnings from the global market are steely-eyed and dispassionate: Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on the U.S. debt last month, signaling the rating agency’s willingness to downgrade the creditworthiness of the United States. The U.S. government admits it is now using gimmicks and sleight of hand to stay under its statutory debt limit. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner diplomatically characterized the recent steps as “extraordinary” measures. What happens if U.S. debt becomes less appealing to bond buyers around the world?
An honest assessment of our nation’s financial problems reveals that we must restructure how Medicare works.
A tested strategy is available. We must make Medicare Part A (hospital insurance) and Part B (health insurance) work more like Medicare Part D (prescription drug insurance). Doing so would dramatically improve the financial condition of our country and help us meet our commitment to seniors.
The prescription drug benefit, passed in 2003 and implemented in 2006, broke ground because it moved away from the traditional Medicare model. Instead of relying on regulated government payments to control costs, the drug benefit relies on cost-conscious consumers selecting drug plans that suit their needs and household budgets. The drug benefit is delivered by private plans, with no government-administered “public option.” The plans compete with each other based on the premiums they charge and the drugs in their benefit packages.
Most important, the government’s contribution toward drug coverage for Medicare participants does not vary based on the plans the beneficiaries select. All beneficiaries in a region are entitled to the same level of government support, based on a weighted average premium charged by the competing plans. Beneficiaries who choose the most expensive plan options pay the extra premiums themselves. Those selecting the less expensive options pay far less.
Critics said this would never work. They said that health care isn’t like electronics or cars, because consumers aren’t looking to save money when it comes to health services. Some said that private insurers wouldn’t participate without more guaranteed enrollment or, if they did, their costs would be sky-high because they lack the leverage to get deep discounts from drug manufacturers. Still others thought that the program would be too complex for seniors to navigate and that millions would opt out because of fear or confusion.
What happened? The drug benefit, now in its sixth year, has outperformed all expectations. Seniors like it. Ninety percent of Medicare participants are in secure drug coverage and express strong satisfaction with the program in independent surveys. Scores of insurers participate in the program. In 2011, every senior in the country has access to a minimum of 28 drug plan options. Competition is working to hold down costs. Current projections by the Medicare actuaries show the 10-year costs of the drug legislation coming in 41 percent below estimates made when the bill passed.