Prescription for failure

Congress seldom does anything simple — especially in the realm of so-called entitlements, where efforts to balance the needs of a diverse population with the demands of a free-enterprise system always are difficult and generally more expensive than they should be.

From efforts to simplify the tax code to the latest program to provide insurance coverage for skyrocketing prescriptions, while keeping the people and big business happy, the result is usually a nightmare of complexity. This certifies the truth of Will Rogers’ assessment that Congress is the largest body of comedians in the world — every time the lawmakers make a law it’s a joke, and every time they make a joke it becomes a law.

The prescription benefit, officially Part D of Medicare, is almost wonderful in its bureaucratic intricacies, a splendid creation of multi-tiered bewilderment that has left huge numbers of those eligible unable to proceed intelligently. Now in its second full month of operation, the price tag, according to critics, is headed for $80 billion a month, a giant windfall for the pharmaceutical industry. By the end of the first decade, in 2016, it is expected to have cost taxpayers a shocking $1 trillion, double the original estimate.

Critics of the prescription benefit, citing a new study financed by a group of liberal organizations, charged that lobbyists for drug companies, the insurance industry and a broad array of health services were responsible for its rising costs and complexities. The report says that these influential groups poured $96 million into political campaigns, with 71 percent going to Republicans. The study also contends that 13 Bush administration and congressional officials in key positions during the writing and passage of the bill now work for pharmaceutical companies.

One thing seems certain: This program was financially irresponsible in the first place. But it is never going away. If it isn’t to end up as one of the bitterest financial pills this nation has ever swallowed, major refinement is absolutely necessary.

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