Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Nation's Priorities


If you were a casual viewer of the news this week, you sure heard a lot about Carnival Cruise’s Voyage to Hell and Back.   And you probably didn’t miss the story about how an “inspirational hero” from the last Olympics – the so-called “blade runner” – is now accused of murder in South Africa.  But while these human-interest stories gathered all the attention, other more important stories slid through the cracks.  These include the coverage of a brief statement that President Obama made in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address to address the high cost of prescription drugs to the Medicare program.  

            Let me first of all remind everyone that the State of the Union Address is a speech given annually by the President of the United States to explain his plans for the upcoming year.  Ten years ago, it was watched by 63 million Americans.  This Tuesday night’s speech was viewed by a mere 33 million – and most of those probably had turned on their TV to watch Cougar Town but were too tired to change the channel.  The President’s address contained a number of suggestions about how the nation can upgrade its infrastructure, better educate its youth, clean up its environment, and address its ballooning debt.  And with respect to that last goal, the President proposed to “reduce taxpayer subsidies to prescription drug companies.”  Sounds reasonable enough, right?   You’d think – but then again, according to the New York Times, the President faces an “uphill road” if he hopes to tackle those subsidies in earnest.

According to published reports, what the President had in mind would change the way the Government pays for the costs of drugs provided to the ten-million beneficiaries who are eligible for both Medicare and Medicaid.   Under existing law, these dual-eligible patients are covered by Medicare, which means that the federal government has been compensating the drug companies based on the Medicare rate.  That rate, however, is more generous to the drug companies than the Medicaid rate.  The change in the law that the President would like to see would enable the Government to receive the same discounts for covering the dual-eligible patients that it would have received if the patients were solely eligible for Medicaid.  

Such a change may not sound like a big deal, but the numbers tell a different story.  While estimates of the proposed savings vary depending on who you believe, everyone agrees that the American taxpayers would save more than $100 billion dollars over the next decade – and perhaps as much as $150 billion.  Everyone also seems to agree that the current approach is, in essence, a subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry.  Where people divide is on the issue of whether such a subsidy is appropriate.   Some say that it is crucial to ensure that drug companies have the money to continue to make as many advances as possible in medical research.  Others say that subsidizing an industry with $300 billion in annual revenues is not something that a society mired in many trillions of dollars in debt can afford.   

I’ll spare you my own thoughts on the wisdom of those subsidies.  You can probably figure them out without much trouble if you read this blog on a regular basis.  But what matters is not what I think as an individual, but what we think as a society – and how little that seems to matter to the policies that are ultimately adopted by our Government.   You see, the Administration suggested this same change last year in its proposed budget, the suggestion was opposed by the pharmaceutical industry, it was never implemented, and the mass media gave virtually no attention to the issue – just like it gives virtually no attention to the other corporate subsidies that we as taxpayers provide every year.

            Are we willingly providing 12-digit subsidies to well-heeled industries?  And if not, why do our “representatives” provide them and our “journalists” ignore them?  Say what you want about the wisdom of our various corporate subsidies, but you’d have to at least agree that they are newsworthy.

            And now back to your regularly scheduled story about flowing urine on the high seas.

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