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Six Million Lost Coverage on Day One of Bush Medicare Drug Program

January 4, 2014

With the Affordable Care Act now in full effect, the conservative propaganda factory is working overtime to produce and publicize Obamacare horror stories, real or imagined. So with the federal government, the states, private insurers, hospitals, doctors and pharmacies scrambling to assist the six million newly insured so far, the GOP's media water carriers are decrying enrollment snafus, delayed surgeries, emergency fixes in the states and even national drug store chains providing a month of prescriptions to customers whose proof of insurance is in limbo. (Breitbart went so far as to suggest that Walgreens and Wal-Mart might be offering that customer service in order to do data mining for Uncle Sam.)
As it turns out, these furious conservatives are suffering from a particularly acute case of selective amnesia. Just 8 years ago this week, the calamitous launch of President Bush's Medicare prescription drug program left over six million previously insured seniors without coverage. Hundreds of thousands more could not get their medications as problem-plagued government computer systems, confused insurers and under-trained pharmacists left subscribers panicked and helpless. But unlike today's sabotage of the Affordable Care Act by Republicans in Congress and in the states, Democrats at all levels helped the Medicare Rx program whose design they opposed.

As the Washington Post reported in January 2006:

Two weeks into the new Medicare prescription drug program, many of the nation's sickest and poorest elderly and disabled people are being turned away or overcharged at pharmacies, prompting more than a dozen states to declare health emergencies and pay for their life-saving medicines.

Roughly 6.4 million seniors who just days earlier had gotten their prescriptions for free as Medicare/Medicaid "dual eligibles" faced the prospect of going without because of untrained pharmacists and computer glitches. By January 16th, 2006, the New York Times reported, many states (most of them led by Democrats) came to their rescue:

About 20 states, including California, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and all of New England, have announced that they will help low-income people by paying drug claims that should have been paid by the federal Medicare program.

Among the governors taking action were future Obamacare foes Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee, who declared a health emergency in his state of Arkansas. The fiasco prompted the Bush administration to take drastic measures:

With tens of thousands of people unable to get medicines promised by Medicare, the Bush administration has told insurers that they must provide a 30-day supply of any drug that a beneficiary was previously taking, and it said that poor people must not be charged more than $5 for a covered drug.

It's no wonder why Paul Krugman summed up the whole catastrophe as "D for Debacle."
But it didn't remain a debacle for long. Days before Bush ordered insurers to "aid ailing Medicare drug plan," Walgreens, CVS and other national drug store chains then as now announced they would fill prescriptions for customers unable to provide proof of their new coverage. (It's is worth noting that no state sued the Bush administration for acting without Congressional authorization when it required insurers to provide the emergency prescription coverage described above.) But despite the fact that even Republicans like John Boehner and Tim Pawlenty admitted President Bush's rollout of Medicare Part D was "horrendous" and "awful," Democrats did everything they could to save it. As then-Senator Hillary Clinton described the effort to salvage a program she and most Democrats opposed as an unnecessarily expensive give-away to private insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms:

"I voted against it, but once it passed I certainly determined that I would try to do everything I could to make sure that New Yorkers understood it, could access it, and make the best of it."

Wisconsin Senator Kohl, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Aging asked his colleagues "to put aside any partisan thoughts to work together to get this program running." They did. The result? The Medicare drug benefit that was even more unpopular than Obamacare now enjoys 90 percent support among America's seniors.
Republicans and their conservative amen corner appear to have forgotten that history, and not because they forgot to take their meds.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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