The possibility of going over the "fiscal cliff" means different things to different groups. For Medicare recipients, any reduction in the Part D program, which provides affordable prescription drugs, is a frightening prospect. And it's just one more reason that President Barack Obama and Congress need to find a solution that doesn't involve arbitrary across-the-board cuts under sequestration.
The uncertainty sure makes me pay attention. Like other Medicare recipients, I recently selected my Part D plan for 2013. Call me a satisfied customer. And while cuts under sequestration could limit my means to buy affordable medicines, I will not be hurt as severely as many other seniors and disabled veterans. Fortunately, I am still able to earn income by writing and teaching part time. I also will not be hurt by the hike in the Medicare age eligibility on the table.
But not everyone is so fortunate, particularly in a state with such a large elderly population. I spoke with 82-year-old Austin R. Curry, executive director of Elder Care Advocacy of Florida, about the fate of Medicare and Medicaid if intransigence wins in Washington.
For 30 years, Curry has been involved in senior affairs and was part of the launching of Part D in 2003. He understands that as the nation attempts to solve its many fiscal challenges, Medicare needs to evolve.
"But any changes must be implemented in a meticulous manner," he said. "Arbitrary changes would be detrimental to the individuals who depend on Part D.
"It benefits the people and saves lives and should be recognized as a best practice. I have seen firsthand in Florida how it has helped seniors and persons with disabilities. Part D is working for those who would not be able to afford medications without it. We are facing unprecedented financial difficulties, but with the right changes, the program will remain a success and continue to help millions of seniors for years to come."
As Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a leading trade group, noted in a report that compiled extensive academic research on Medicare Part D:
• Overall cost is 43 percent, or $435 billion, below initial projections.
• Satisfaction rate among beneficiaries is 88 percent.
• Seniors save money through monthly premiums as low as $14.
• Low-income beneficiaries have access to medicines at little or no cost.
• It has lowered Medicare spending by helping patients avoid costly hospitalizations and other health care services.
Florida alone has 3,784,225 residents covered by Medicare and 3,247,677 with coverage from Medicaid, the latter including 1,735,771 children and 444,500 seniors, according to AFL-CIO research. And Florida has thousands of rural seniors who have limited access to medical facilities as a result of long distances and scheduling problems.
Curry, an Air Force veteran of the Korean conflict, said that as lawmakers and the president negotiate, they need to remember that the Part D prescription drug program is essential, providing life-saving medications to those often in dire need.
"Even a 10 percent reduction in Part D will result in the deaths of many as they are unable to afford the difference since many have hundreds of dollars a month in critical medications," Curry said. "Most Medicare enrollees cannot even afford an extra $50 or $100 in additional monthly expense.
"We are talking about senior citizens who have fought the wars, survived the Great Depression, reared children, did without in days of rationing, and are now in the twilight years, having given their all to this great nation. Can anyone justify the balancing of the budget on the backs of these patriotic and dedicated souls in their time of need while giving the wealthy a free ride?"
Although legislators have legitimate concerns over an exploding federal budget deficit, reducing debt and spurring economic growth, they should keep in mind that our so-called entitlements are not equally effective. Medicare Part D is a worthy program, delivering exceptional value at a lower cost by using competitive prescription drug bidding. It is a lifeline that serves mostly senior citizens on fixed incomes.
It should be protected from cuts that would merely shift problems to other federal and state programs.