Free drugs for seniors is a notion that makes good political and social sense, but from an economic standpoint the idea stinks.
At least for now. The new president and Congress will face some unexpected hurdles in attempting to fulfill everybody's favorite political campaign promise: expanding Medicare benefits to include prescription-drug coverage.
The new stumbling blocks include:
* Soaring healthcare costs, which could spark higher overall inflation.
* A report by government actuaries and economists warning that the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund is draining faster than forecasted previously.
* A bitter partisan hangover from the presidential election, which will lead to nasty political and philosophical disputes once drug-plan legislation is introduced in Congress next year.
Don't expect much to happen, even though both George Bush and Al Gore campaigned for generous Medicare drug benefits.
Populist Gore favored a $253 billion, 10-year program that would be administered by the federal government. Bush's less-ambitious 10-year plan called for $158 billion in subsidies funneled through state programs and later through competing health plans.
In the heat of political battle, the ideas made some sense. And why not? The economy was percolating, the government's treasury was flush and evidence indicated that healthcare spending was under control. Those rosy conditions now seem like a pipe dream.
Instead of haggling over such a costly, contentious issue, healthcare providers should focus their lobbying efforts on expanding medical coverage for the uninsured. Creating ways to cut down the embarrassingly high number of uninsured can be constructed as a bipartisan issue.
As far as drug subsidies go, providers can work to publicize and expand state pharmaceutical coverage programs. Some 22 states already have funded offices that offer drug-cost assistance to the elderly and the disabled who don't qualify for Medicaid.
When the time is right, the more successful and efficiently run state programs will serve as models for future federal intervention.