A Poisoned Pill

July 1, 2003

The health insurance provided for senior citizens (or the lack thereof) has become a national disgrace.

Facing intense pressure from seniors and the whole population to do something about the problem, the politicians in Washington, D.C. are promising "the biggest expansion of Medicare since its creation," by providing prescription drug coverage. But on examination, this "big expansion" is really a poisoned pill. It will provide only minimal economic assistance to seniors while opening the door to the further privatization and undermining of the entire Medicare program.

The new Medicare drug benefit will not be available before 2006 and although the final provisions are still to be worked out, it is clear that seniors will still have to pay thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses. Any senior who enrolls in the drug plan will have to pay nearly $500/year in premiums as well as a deductible of $250-275 (many seniors can not even afford to enroll). After that, enrollees would still have to make co-payments, perhaps as high as 50% on all costs up to $4,500. A study of the proposed legislation done by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that by 2006 the average senior will have $3,000/year in prescription bills and that the government would end up paying less than $1,000.

But while the benefit to seniors will be minimal, the insurance companies and big HMOs will reap big profits. For-profit companies will be allowed to enroll seniors in prescription plans thus diverting billions of taxpayers dollars to the private sector. In addition, the House version of the proposed legislation, would allow private plans to compete with Medicare in all areas starting in 2010.

In fact, such privatization is the real driving force behind the new legislation. Medicare and Medicaid are social funds which the people have forced the government to set aside to guarantee at least certain minimal health care needs of seniors and the poor. Through privatization the capitalists hope to get their hands on these funds and convert them into another source of profits. In turn, such privatization will undermine the entitlement status of Medicare and Medicaid, increasing the costs and undermining the quality of care for the most needy.

The reality is that it is precisely the profit-motive which is destroying our country's health care system. Every year, the big health conglomerates and insurance companies raise prices, forcing tens of millions of people to go without any insurance. At the same time, employers are cutting back on insurance benefits, forcing workers to pay more and more in co-premiums, deductibles and co-payments.

And the government, rather than stepping in to guarantee the basic rights of the people, is following the capitalists' lead, cutting funds for Medicaid and Medicare and privatizing these vital programs.

The people must fight for a fundamental change in the health care system. Health care must be recognized as an inalienable right and the government must make all the investments needed to guarantee comprehensive and free care for everyone.