Drug plan: The sky isn't falling

Americans today expect to live longer and to be better off than the generation in whose footsteps we follow.

As longevity rates climb, society is adjusting to the demographic changes. Housing, healthcare, transportation and pension security all factor into the public-policy mix, and healthcare might be the biggest issue on the minds of most Americans.

Consider prescription medicines. Consumers have grown increasingly dependent on pharmaceutical drugs to cure what ails them. Two years ago, the demand for more affordable access to prescription medicine crescendoed when a Republican-led Congress established the first-ever voluntary, universal and comprehensive prescription-drug benefit under Medicare.

The first open-enrollment period for this permanent Medicare prescription-drug benefit for all 43 million Medicare-eligible Americans begins Nov. 15. Coverage begins Jan. 1.

The new Medicare drug benefit is completely voluntary. But Medicare beneficiaries and their caregivers and families should take time to learn more about it and consider carefully the plan that best works for them.

The new Medicare law is designed to promote competition among private insurers in the marketplace to help reduce costs in the new drug benefit. In putting the legislation together, we insisted that any organization wanting to provide drug-benefit coverage under Medicare meet stringent requirements to ensure that recipients have good access to community pharmacies and that the insurers offer coverage for the drugs that beneficiaries need.

Rigorous competition is helping to hold down costs for the new drug benefit. In Iowa, 17 organizations will offer stand-alone prescription-drug plans. Of those, two will offer plans with monthly premiums of less than $20. In fact, one plan's monthly premium is just $1.87.

Medicare beneficiaries across the country also could lower their out-of-pocket costs by enrolling in Medicare Advantage. This option would combine Medicare Part A (hospital coverage) Part B (physician coverage) and the new Medicare Part D (drug benefits) into one coordinated benefit. For a lower monthly premium, some beneficiaries will enroll in plans in which they agree to use a certain network of preferred providers. They also may receive additional benefits beyond those provided in fee-for-service Medicare.

With federal coffers stretched thin to pay for wartime spending and rebuilding the Gulf Coast, questions loom as to how the federal government can afford to unveil the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit right now.

Some say the sky is falling. Others bury their heads in the sand with pie-in-the-sky spending ideas.

When the new benefit was written, those of us negotiating were conscientious about reducing the federal deficit. Our agreement struck the most reasonable balance for Medicare beneficiaries and hardworking taxpayers. Above all, the new benefit is part of creating a new mind-set about healthcare in America. By keeping Medicare beneficiaries healthier with prescription therapies, we can ultimately save money from far more expensive surgeries and hospital stays. At the same time, we work to improve the quality of many lives.

The new Medicare law also provides for preventive-health-screening benefits, including checks for high cholesterol and diabetes, bone-mass measurements, annual mammograms and flu shots. Low-income Americans will receive additional financial assistance, and those with catastrophic drug costs will have protection from these high costs.

As approved organizations compete for business among Medicare beneficiaries, I'm making it my business to watch for signs of telemarketing fraud, misleading information or any other monkey business that meddles with Medicare. Along with keeping watch over this new law, just last month the Senate Finance Committee hammered out tough spending decisions to help restore fiscal discipline with a plan to trim $10 billion in savings from Medicare and Medicaid. We reduced wasteful spending and closed program loopholes while still protecting the most vulnerable beneficiaries.

As one of the engineers of the new Medicare law, I intend to see this train leave the station on time and run according to schedule. And as Medicare beneficiaries climb aboard, I'll continue to conduct rigorous oversight authority during implementation of the new prescription-drug benefit and beyond.

Grassley is chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance.