Fact Checking WaPo
April 13, 2006 - 11:39am ET
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When a headline wrapping a story about the Medicare prescription drug program is as glowing as the one in yesterday's Washington Post —"Most Seniors Enrolled Say Drug Benefit Saves Money"—you know something's up. I don't say this because I'm a cynic or incapable of believing that any program run by this administration could deliver positive results. I say this because the frustration and angst of the older and disabled Americans who are trying to use the Medicare Part D program is widely documented. Even Bill Frist's mother and HHS secretary Mike Leavitt's parents have had problems.
Part of what vexes liberals like me about the Medicare disaster is that the Bush administration took a big-government program that was actually running well—offering a crucial service to the nation at reasonable taxpayer expense—and screwed it up. That it was all part of massive corporate welfare scheme in which the participating pharmaceutical companies received huge government subsidies also aggravates. But, evaluated from the perspective of the people Medicare is intended to serve, the big crime is that the program simply doesn't deliver. And that's what the WaPo's sunny reporting obscured.
Critics of Medicare Part D target the quality and breadth of coverage Part D provides, not the paperwork involved in signing up for the program. But the relative simplicity of the paperwork was one of the key factors informing the Post's conclusion that "most seniors" enrolled in the program are "pleased:"
... among those who have enrolled, three-quarters said the paperwork was easy to complete and nearly two-thirds said the program saved them money.
Yes, critics have lambasted the confusion involved in enrolling, but mostly as secondary to the central complaint that the coverage is inadequate for the money it costs taxpayers. And advocates for older and disabled Americans have never contested the fact that Part D would save some participants money. But the chief failing of Part D is the breadth and quality of coverage, which the Post article ignores. While Part D may be saving some participants money now, later the situation will change. And while many seniors are enrolled in the program, most were automatically enrolled —another fact overlooked by the reporters—and there are still millions who are not enrolled.
Jeff Cruz, of the Campaign for America's Future, which was against the plan from the get-go, explains:
What is crucial is how, according to this article, 1/3 of seniors aren’t saving any money at all on a $760 billion-dollar program. And seniors who are saving money haven’t hit the doughnut hole yet [which is jargon for a gap in Part D coverage], and haven’t had their plans jack up prices yet, events that are sure to occur in the future.
Granted, it's confusing. But it's a reporter's job to figure these details out and explain them. The article doesn't mention the headaches that await seniors—as well as disabled Americans, who people often forget also benefit from Medicare—down the line. The Post deserves credit for seeking a quote from one of Medicare Part D's loudest critics, about the confusion the enrollment process has caused:
Robert M. Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center, said his telephone operators were so besieged by anxious seniors that he brought in social workers to counsel them on "stress disorders."
With the May 15th deadline looming, the media's focus on the enrollment process is understandable. But they also have the responsibility to report what happens once seniors navigate enrollment—whether it's easy or hard. If the reporters had given Robert Hayes the chance, he would have noted—as he has for TomPaine.com —that the stress doesn't end with enrollment. Because once they've signed up for a plan, the real problems begin: gaps in coverage, high out-of-pocket expenses for people who are mostly on fixed incomes, denials of coverage for certain drugs, and the inability to leave the plan if it drops the drug you need (which experts say will happen). Putting this information out there is not only in the public interest, but will help the Post's readers understand how, when the Post starts running human interest stories about old ladies on pensions who are eating cat food to afford the prescription drugs not covered by their fancy new Part D plan, the Bush administration got us into this mess.
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