Washington, D.C. – U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., voted today in favor of ending debate on a proposal that would make some of the "most significant changes to the Medicare program in history."
Teenagers, seniors, low income, uninsured, unemployed, working, retired, rural, urban, healthy, sick, Enzi said this Medicare legislation is an important bill that could affect all Wyomingites. Every taxpayer will be paying its $400 billion price tag.
"This bill would add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, offer new coverage options to seniors and provide a tax-free way for people to save money to pay for their own healthcare needs. It contains provisions I inserted in the bill to help keep local pharmacies in business. It would help equalize the reimbursement rates Medicare pays to doctors and hospitals in rural areas with the rates paid for healthcare in cities," said Enzi. "This bill has the power to transform the out-of-date and rigid Medicare program we have now into a flexible plan that will keep up with medical advances and survive the 21st Century."
Enzi and other backers of the bill were able to gather the 60 votes necessary to overcome a filibuster staged by Democrats who wanted to add to the bill's price tag and eliminate choice and competition. The vote was 70–29 to end the filibuster and move toward a final vote on the bill. The House passed the legislation 220-215 Saturday. There may be a few more procedural obstacles to overcome, but Enzi believes a final vote is likely to come before Thanksgiving, possibly this evening or tomorrow.
"This bill is not perfect, but it is progress," said Enzi. "This is a 21st Century plan that means more choices and better benefits."
Shout it from the rooftops: Health Savings Accounts
Enzi believes one of the most significant portions of the bill, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), is not receiving the attention it deserves.
"Healthcare savings accounts are an idea whose time has come. They are long overdue. They need to be advertised. Young people of this country need to understand that there are parts of this bill that they can benefit from too. If they use these accounts now it will save them money later and they can take more control over their own healthcare as they grow older. This in turn will be good for the healthcare system as a whole," said Enzi.
"These accounts are a huge advancement in taking care of the uninsured. Nearly four out of every 10 Americans who set up accounts under a demonstration program to test tax-free savings accounts for medical expenses were previously uninsured."
HSAs are tax-free savings accounts people can use to save money for medical expenses. The accounts could be opened by everyone with a high-deductible health insurance plan. The higher the deductible, the less the premiums are and the more a person would be allowed to put in the account. Employers would also be able to contribute to their employees' accounts and their contributions would also be tax-free as long as the money is used to pay for healthcare expenses. The accounts would also be portable. They would travel with the person as they change jobs.
"Health savings accounts create a tax incentive for everybody- - not just seniors- - to save for healthcare expenses. It doesn't matter whether your employer offers health insurance or not; you can still save money in one of these accounts and receive the tax benefit. This provides some tax fairness for folks who don't have access to the tax advantages of employer-sponsored health insurance," Enzi said.
Total yearly contributions to a Healthcare Savings Account can be as large as the individual's health insurance plan deductible, between $1,000 and $5,000 for self-coverage and $2,000 and $10,000 for family coverage.
Prescription drug benefit is voluntary
Enzi said one of the most important features of the plan is that it is voluntary.
"If seniors don't want Medicare drug coverage, they don't have to pay for it. They can keep things the way they are now," Enzi said. "At the same time, the bill would create new Medicare options for seniors. It would provide $85 billion in incentives to employers to encourage them to maintain the coverage they provide to their retirees. It also would create incentives for private health plans to innovate and compete for the businesses of today's seniors and invigorate Medicare for future generations."
Enzi said adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare makes sense because, unlike in the 1960s when Medicare was created, prescription drugs are now absolutely integral to providing quality healthcare.
"Medicare is critical to the health and well-being of 66,000 elderly and disabled citizens in Wyoming. That may not sound like a lot of people, but it is more than 13 percent of Wyoming's population," said Enzi.
New benefits, new costs
Enzi was careful to point out that this new bill will not pay every dollar of a senior's prescription drug costs.
"A drug benefit for needy seniors is important, but it is also important that we preserve Medicare for future generations. This drug benefit isn't free, but it is responsible. We set aside $400 billion in the federal budget over the next 10 years to pay for this benefit and to improve Medicare, especially for our rural citizens.
Some opponents of the legislation want to amend the bill to increase spending. They point out that seniors are expected to spend $1.8 trillion on prescription drugs over the next 10 years. Enzi countered that for a plan to be realistic it must be fair to the people who will be footing the bill.
"Nothing in life is truly free, and prescription drugs are not an exception. We need to remember that every new federal program comes at a price. We need to be aware of just what that price is when we ask for a new program. It is not always the people receiving the benefit that are paying the benefit. The $400 billion is the equivalent of about $1,600 from every taxpayer over that 10-year period," said Enzi. "I suppose we could have passed a $1.8 trillion drug benefit. Of course, we would have had to raise taxes by $1.4 trillion to do it. I cannot speak for the rest of my colleagues, but I just became a grandfather this year and I am not willing to put that kind of a tax burden on my grandson."
Enzi said even though the bill is not perfect, it would help millions of seniors and reform Medicare to help it survive into the future. Organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) back up his statement and support the legislation.
"This bill doesn't cover every dollar of every prescription for every senior. But that is not a reasonable expectation. What this bill does is provide help and protection for the two groups that need it the most - those who can least afford prescription drugs, and those who otherwise would be bankrupted by a serious illness that requires expensive drug therapies. These are worthy objectives and this agreement accomplishes those goals," Enzi said.
Enzi is a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also hand picked Enzi to serve on a select Senate task force set up to find solutions to the rising cost of healthcare and the rising number of Americans going without health insurance.
More details and Wyoming-specific examples on rural healthcare, local pharmacies and other aspects of this historic legislation can be found in the written text of a statement Sen. Enzi delivered on the Senate floor Sunday night. It can be accessed on his website