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Jewish World Review August 13, 2002 / 5 Elul, 5762

Bill Schneider

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Consumer Reports

Overdosing on prescription drug promises | Four prescription drug plans have now failed in the United States Senate. The question is, who pays? Not for the drugs. For the broken promise.

In the 2000 campaign, both parties made the same promise to seniors. Here's Al Gore, August 28, 2000: ``I will pass a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Together we'll make it happen.'' Here's George W. Bush, September 11, 2000: ``Prescription drugs for seniors are going to be not only a priority, we're going to get something done.'' What happens now?

We know three things about seniors. One, they vote. Especially in midterm elections, when other people don't vote. In the 2000 presidential election, voters 60 and older made up 22 percent of the turnout, according to the network exit polls. In the 1998 midterm, they accounted for 28 percent.

Two, seniors swing. At least, politically. In the last six presidential elections, seniors voted Republican three times (1980, 1984 and 1988) and Democratic three times (1992, 1996 and 2000). A Democratic trend? Well, no. Because in three out of the last four House elections, seniors nationwide have voted Republican.

The House vote among seniors was crucial in 1998. That was the impeachment midterm, when Democrats upset all expectations and gained seats in the House of Representatives. Seniors went against the national tide, however, and favored Republican House candidates by a ten-point margin (55-45 percent). It was because of seniors that Republicans retained controlled of the House of Representatives. Seniors, more than other constituency, were offended by President Clinton's behavior in the White House.

In 2000, the senior vote for the House reversed and went Democratic, 51 to 47 percent. As a result, the House nearly reverted to Democratic control two years ago. What propelled the senior vote in 2000? Concern about prescription drugs and social security, the top two issues for seniors.

That leads to the third distinctive feature of senior politics. They care, particularly about issues that affect them. The top two issues among all voters right now, according to Gallup, are the economy and the war on terrorism. Among seniors, the top two issues are the same as they were in 2000 -- social security and prescription drugs.

The senior vote is no longer reliably Democratic, as it used to be when it was dominated by the Depression generation. New generations entering seniorhood are not as instinctively Democratic. They continue to vote Democratic when issues like social security, medicare and prescription drug coverage are uppermost in their minds. But when the ``values agenda'' dominates, as in 1994 and 1998, seniors favor the GOP.

If angry seniors now feel betrayed on the prescription drug issue, whom will they take it out on? ``The House has acted,'' Senate minority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said on July 17. ``The Senate needs to produce a result.'' It didn't. After a Senate floor debate that lasted more than two weeks -- an unusually long time for the Senate -- four plans failed to get the 60 votes needed to shut down debate.

There are two basic issues in contention. Should all seniors be covered, or just those with low incomes or high drug costs? And should the coverage be provided by the government or by private insurers? First the Democrats proposed their high-ticket plan which covered all seniors through medicare, at a cost of nearly $600 billion over ten years. The Democratic plan got 52 votes on July 23. The same day, the Republicans' $370 billion proposal, which would have subsidized coverage for all seniors through private health-care insurers, got 48 votes.

Each party then scaled back its proposal by targeting the benefits to people with low incomes or high drug costs. The targeted Republican plan (price tag: $170 billion) got 51 votes on July 31. The targeted Democratic Plan (price tag: $390 billion) got 49 votes on July 31. Both parties were willing to compromise on the scale of coverage. But neither party would compromise on the basic ideological issue, whether the prescription drug program should be part of medicare or rely on private insurers.

In the Democrats' weekly radio address last Saturday, Sen. Tim Johnson blasted the GOP plan, which he said would ``force seniors unto private drug HMOs rather than create a guaranteed benefit in medicare.'' He charged that ``the big drug companies joined with the large insurance companies to defeat the Senate Democrats' plan, and their Republican allies listened to them.''

Democrats' claim to have greater credibility on the issue. Polls back them up. By 50 to 33 percent in last month's Gallup poll, the public said Democrats would handle the issue of prescription drug coverage better than Republicans. Democrats also care about the issue more than Republicans do. Forty-seven percent of Democrats, compared to 31 percent of Republicans, described prescription drugs as an ``extremely important'' issue in their vote for Congress this year. Angry Democrats are more likely to vote than defensive Republicans.

One Democratic old-timer put it this way: ``In 1964, I was here in the United States Senate when we had the great debate on medicare, and in that year, the debate was lost. About seven months later, with a new Congress, we came back in 1965 and passed medicare. The major intervening event was an electon.''

That was Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on July 11. His fellow seniors were around then. They remember. That's what Democrats are counting on.

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© 2002, William Schneider