If you think Social Security is in trouble, take a look at Medicare. New 10-year cost estimates for the prescription drug benefit approved by Congress in 2003 have created a bipartisan fuss on Capitol Hill.
The Bush Administration's own figures for the drug program for 2006-2015 put the cost at $724 billion. This is renewed sticker shock to lawmakers, many of whom reluctantly voted for the benefit when they were assured the cost would be no more than $400 billion for 2004-2013.
Two months after the initial vote, the estimate was boosted to $534 billion. It turned out that John Scully, then chief of the Medicare agency, had lied about the cost, even threatening to fire an actuary who wanted to give the real numbers to Congress.
Mr. Scully is gone - he left to become a pharmaceutical industry lobbyist - but the projected cost to provide prescription drugs to the nation's retirees beginning next year seems to know no bounds. The White House claims that the increase is only due to a difference in the 10-year period covered by the estimates, although its reputation for voodoo accounting to make program costs appear reasonable makes that argument unconvincing.
President Bush, who used the prescription drug program as a re-election tool, now says he will fix Medicare after he gets through with Social Security. Older Americans should beware. If Mr. Bush follows through on his promises, they will have less money in old age to spend on prescription drugs - or anything else.
Fortunately, some in Congress, including the President's fellow Republicans, are weary of being duped by the White House's ever-shifting figures. Conservatives want to cap the program at $400 billion, but that would merely leave seniors with a much-diluted benefit.
A better idea would be to give the government the authority to bargain with pharmaceutical manufacturers for lower prices on drugs. Mr. Bush opposes this common-sense step because he has received millions in campaign contributions from the drug industry.
It's time for Congress to sweep this nonsense aside and create a real opportunity for cheaper drugs, both through price negotiation and importation from Canada, where prices are substantially lower for identical products.
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