There has to be a better way.
President Clinton's plan to add a costly drug benefit to Medicare is strong on good intentions but goofy on arithmetic.
With a straight face, the president will tell you the government can pull off the medical miracle-without price controls on drugmakers-for a net 10-year cost of $46 billion.
Not so, says the Congressional Budget Office, which has weighed in with a prescription drug benefit cost estimate of $111 billion over 10 years.
Regardless of the math, adding such an entitlement to financially wobbly Medicare is an idea whose time has not yet come.
That's not to discount the vital importance of pharmaceuticals in maintaining the health of America's seniors. But under current circumstances, adding a Part D to the Medicare benefits package poses too great a financial risk.
A more appropriate strategy for the rest of the president's term is to put the Medicare house in order, including providing fiscal relief to hospitals whacked by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
To cover drug costs for seniors, we should try less-costly options first. For instance, the $792 billion tax-cut bill that Congress has sent to Clinton would allow Medicare beneficiaries to deduct from their taxable incomes the cost of buying private insurance to cover prescription drugs.
The measure would mandate other sensible Medicare reforms. For instance, it would direct government subsidies to help low-income seniors pay for drugs and would require private insurance plans marketed to seniors to cover drugs and offer a drugs-only option.
Clinton has vowed to veto the tax-cut package. He sees that as his right and his duty. But when he's done with political grandstanding, the president should look seriously at Congress' view of the drug benefit. Settling on a less-ambitious prescription for drug coverage could lead to a compromise and allow something to be done before Clinton moves to New York.