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Forum editorial: Problem is rising drug costs

One of the toughest issues facing Congress this month is developing a drug prescription benefit that really works. Separate proposals in the House and Senate are so far apart that it seems unlikely a good drug benefit will come out of conference ...

One of the toughest issues facing Congress this month is developing a drug prescription benefit that really works. Separate proposals in the House and Senate are so far apart that it seems unlikely a good drug benefit will come out of conference committee, clear both chambers and get to the president's desk.

That's not to say something won't be approved. The nation is sliding into a major election year. Every member of the House is up for re-election as is much of the Senate. President Bush faces a serious challenge from an energized Democratic Party which certainly will coalesce behind its nominee. All of them want to claim credit for a Medicare drug benefit for senior citizens.

And it's likely they all will. Problem is, whatever is approved won't be enough. Moreover, a proposed delay in implementation until 2006 seems designed to let politicians get through the next election before potential beneficiaries of the drug plan realize how inadequate it is.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the House drug benefit passed easily with bipartisan support. Even North Dakota's Democratic Congressman Earl Pomeroy supports the legislation, contending it's better than no plan. He's apparently not buying into the worry that the reliance on private insurers to administer the Medicare drug plan is the first step in dismantling Medicare.

That privatization provision is unacceptable to the Senate. Much of the conference committee's work will be cobbling together a compromise on that knotty issue -- a knot that some observers say can't be untied.

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But whether a drug benefit measure reaches the president's desk (he's said he'll sign it) is less important than the fraud it is. The time bomb is not a modest drug benefit; it's escalating drug costs. Thus far, nothing significant in the drug proposals addresses the high-and-getting-higher costs for prescription drugs. And that factor alone is why the pharmaceutical industry supports the Medicare drug benefit.

Maybe Pomeroy is right: Some sort of drug benefit is better than none. A start on the problem is better than not starting. But make no mistake about it: The proposals in Congress are being sold as far more than they are. Nothing on the congressional table addresses seriously the drug cost outrage or the stresses that will test the health care system as the Baby Boom generation ages.

But, hey, it's an election year. No rational thinking allowed. No long-term planning allowed.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

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