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Tully Olson: Medicare and Medicaid’s 57th anniversary

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Last week marked the 57th anniversary of Medicare and Medicaid. Guided by the steady hand of Montana’s great statesman Sen. Mike Mansfield, this landmark legislation granted millions of Americans access to health care. Congress has taken tremendous steps over the last two years to make sure that more Americans could get access to affordable health care through Medicaid just as millions of Americans lost their jobs and their insurance because of the economic slowdown connected to COVID. Medicaid was a major tool in that COVID response, just as it has been in many other crises from hurricanes to terrorist attacks.

In 2003, Congress passed the Medicare Modernization Act, a bill to create Part D, the Medicare program for prescription drug coverage. The law, passed under the Bush administration, was unpopular among seniors and legislators of both parties. At the time, they worried that many seniors would actually be worse off under this new benefit, which turned over power to big pharma to set their own prices and raise them at-will, rather than negotiating prices with the government as they do in programs like Medicaid and in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

People were right to be afraid. Americans pay among the highest prices in the world, at times as much as 250% increased price for brand name prescription drugs compared to other industrialized countries. At the same time, we fund the vast majority for research and development for big pharma worldwide. This has real-life implications for American seniors; over 20% self-report rationing life-saving medications because of cost. No one in this country should face these choices, much less seniors enrolled in Medicare who have a median income of just $26,000 and who need prescriptions to manage declining health.

Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are nearing a deal that will make health premiums for people with private insurance more affordable. It will also tax corporations that have benefited from countless loopholes and breaks over the years and finally lower the cost of prescription drugs by allowing for Medicare to negotiate under Part D.

This new package will accomplish major achievements that help all Americans:

● It will require the federal government to negotiate prices for some high-cost drug.

● It will cap out-of-pocket costs at $2,000 a year.

● It will prevent big pharma from gouging prices in times of high inflation.

● The package will also save taxpayers over $288 billion over 10 years, instead of the money going into big pharma's pocketbook.

Access to health care should not depend on which zip code you live in, what kind of job you have or how much income you make. Access to affordable coverage isn’t just about better health, it’s a central factor in economic freedom and security. Without it, too many Montanans are one sickness, one car accident or one on-the-job injury from hardship or bankruptcy. Let us celebrate this 57th anniversary by improving on an already unique American success.

Tully Olson is the executive director of Big Sky 55+, an organization that seeks to advance the public interests of Montana seniors.


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