Opinion: Medicare Part D helps seniors, keeps costs down

By Margie Ball Cook, RN, Ph.D.

Colorados seniors are benefiting as never before from prescription drugs that are saving and prolonging their lives and uplifting the quality of those lives.

And believe it or not, a federal program Medicare Part D has played a pivotal role in that success. Part D saves U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, stimulates investment in breakthrough pharmaceutical research, and is immensely popular among some 30 million Americans who take advantage of it. Its not often you can say that about any government effort, and Medicares singularly successful Part D program represents a distinct exception.

Enacted in 2003 a relative latecomer in the history of Medicare Part D provides prescription-drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries through a sensible, flexible approach that works so well it is even serving as the basis for proposed reforms to the rest of the Medicare program.

Part D empowers consumers to make choices in the marketplace, stimulating cost-containing competition. The program does that by working exclusively through private plans, whether they be standalone prescription drug plans or comprehensive health plans that offer prescription drugs and are covered under the Part C Medicare Advantage program. Different plans offer different options for coverage, co-payments and premiums, enabling beneficiaries to pick what will work best for them.

This thoughtful approach not only reins in costs, but it also gives seniors meaningful options for their prescription drugs, ensuring them access to even some of the latest-generation medications. Medicare Part D plans must cover all or substantially all drugs in six categories from anti-depressants to anti-cancer drugs.

Not surprisingly, this approach has proven overwhelmingly popular in surveys conducted among the nations 48 million Medicare beneficiaries, with over 80 percent of respondents typically expressing approval of the program.

Medicare Part D has reached popularity levels that you seldom, if ever, see from a government program, said Mary R. Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council.

Not only is it overwhelmingly embraced by its beneficiaries for making more and better drug options available to them, but it also has helped foster the development of those drugs in the first place. In helping seniors to afford these latest treatments, Part D bolsters critical research and development by assuring market demand.

Meanwhile, Part D also is safeguarding the taxpaying public. The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that improved access and adherence to medicines because of Part D saves Medicare about $1,200 per year in hospital, nursing home and other costs for each senior who previously lacked comprehensive drug coverage a $12 billion-per-year savings for Medicare.

And the Congressional Budget Office reported last year that Part D costs 43 percent less than the initial 2004-2013 forecast projection. In fact, in March 2012, CBO reduced its Medicare Part D spending projection for 2013-2022 by $107 billion.

Unfortunately, the federal government is considering significant changes to Part D changes that may jeopardize the future success of this program. It seems odd to cut a program that is already saving billions of taxpayer dollars and, most importantly, improving the lives of millions of seniors. That, however, is sometimes how D.C. works.

Instead, policymakers in Washington should be studying Part Ds success and putting the programs success to work in other areas of the federal budget.

But, most importantly, we need to support Part D because it works for seniors. For all the challenges seniors face in meeting their health-care needs, its reassuring that at least one effort to help them has achieved unanticipated success.

Now is not the time to take a step backwards on Part D.

Margie Ball Cook, RN, Ph.D., is a member of the board of the Colorado Council of Black Nurses.

Opinions communicated in Solutions represent the view of individual authors, and may not reflect the position of the University of Colorado Denver or the University of Colorado system.