Don’t let political squabble endanger the success of Medicare Part D

By Eileen Doherty

Ten years ago this month, the Medicare Part D drug benefit was signed into law. It got off to a rocky start and was more unpopular at the time than the Affordable Care Act. On its 10th anniversary, Part D has surpassed expectations in improving seniors’ access to affordable medicines and containing health care costs for all Coloradans.

Part D is more essential to our state’s future than ever. Part D’s success is one thing on which Republicans and Democrats can agree, and the program should not get caught up in the partisan battles of Congress.

Our aging population undoubtedly strains Colorado’s health care system. Over the next 12 years, according to a new report from Englewood-based research firm IHS, hospital stays will rise dramatically and the demand for primary care will jump 14 percent. With one of the highest concentration of baby boomers in the country, Colorado’s health sector will be hit particularly hard.

The good news is that Part D is part of the solution.

Colorado has one of the fastest aging populations in the country. Between 2011 and 2021, the number of elderly residents is expected to more than double. Colorado’s Medicare spending is already growing at an annual rate of nearly 9 percent. This trend is certain to accelerate as the population ages.

The health of Colorado seniors is also important to our overall economy. In the last 10 years, the number of residents 65 or older actively working in the state has climbed steadily. Today, nearly one out of five in Colorado’s workforce is over 65. When these individuals develop chronic illnesses, it takes a toll on output. It’s estimated that lost workplace productivity from chronic disease costs the U.S. economy about $1 trillion every year.

Fortunately, over the last decade, Medicare Part D has proved to be a valuable tool for both improving the well-being of seniors and keeping health care costs in check.

Today, more than 360,000 Colorado seniors are enrolled in Part D. The benefit allows enrollees to choose from more than 30 different private plans, some of which cost as little as $12.60 a month.

Affordable drug coverage and proper medication adherence improve health and help slow Medicare’s spending growth. Costly procedures and hospital visits are less common when patients take their medications as prescribed by their physicians. Part D has helped save Medicare about $1,200 a year per patient in medical spending unrelated to prescription drugs.

Access to innovative treatments and medicines empowers workers to better manage their illnesses and be more productive on the job. Disability rates among seniors who’ve suffered a heart attack, for example, have been cut in half over the past decade, thanks to breakthrough prescription medicines.

In the past nine years, we’ve seen new treatments for lung cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia, cystic fibrosis, lupus and many other devastating diseases. These breakthroughs promise to dramatically improve the health of seniors while reducing the economic costs of many debilitating conditions.

Many new medicines are being developed right here by Colorado’s growing pharmaceutical sector, which employs almost 27,000 residents.

Despite Part D’s undeniable success, some in Congress are looking to undermine the program in their push to cut the budget. Over the past several years, some lawmakers have targeted the drug benefit with changes that would save little money, while destroying a market-based structure that has kept the program’s costs low.

At the Colorado Gerontological Society, we see firsthand how seniors struggle to make ends meet on a fixed income. The Part D prescription drug benefit is saving seniors money. Having access to affordable medication is something seniors have come to count on — and often their lives depend on it.

Simply put, Medicare Part D is one government program that is popular and saves money. Let’s protect what works. Our leaders in Washington shouldn’t let today’s political battles get in the way of something that benefits Coloradans today and for decades to come.

Eileen Doherty is the executive director of the Colorado Gerontological Society.


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