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Our Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit – It Works

I’ve got to admit that I’m not a believer in government programs. They’re often implemented on short sighted political goals, are difficult to respond as times change, are inefficient, and grow bigger and bigger. . . because that’s what government programs do. While the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit, Part D, has exhibited some of these problems, it has turned out to have cost less than expected and become one of the more popular government programs around. Despite its apparent success there are renewed calls to make some very basic changes to Part D. I’ve talked about these proposals in earlier blogs. On Wednesday, June 16th, we’re going to hold a virtual town hall to talk about these proposed changes (see below to register). I thought it would be appropriate in this blog to look back at the origin of Part D and highlight its basic components and how those components have worked over the last 15 years. In next week’s blog I will outline the changes proposed in H.R. 3, the “Lower Drug Prices Now Act,” the broad-based bill that has been introduced in the House and is presently in subcommittee. My goal is to give you some background on Part D and H.R. 3 before the town hall on the 16th.

A Medicare prescription drug benefit has been discussed since Medicare was implemented back in 1965. At that time, it was the hospital and doctor costs that were bankrupting seniors and prescription drug costs were somewhat constant. It is interesting to note that in the early 1960s prescription drugs accounted for 10% of the total healthcare costs, today; over 60 years later, the percentage is 11%. In all the discussions on healthcare costs this fact is often overlooked. There was a prescription benefit signed into law as part of the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act in 1988. It was promptly repealed in 1989 as the ways to pay for it became difficult and controversial. Almost every president since the 60s has had some dealings with trying to enact a prescription drug benefit.

Finally, in 2003, President Bush was able sign the Medicare Modernization Act which finally formally established a prescription drug benefit, labeled Medicare Part D. The legislation:

  • Satisfied those members of Congress who were afraid of implementing a huge government “socialist-like” program by using private insurers to implement the program and to compete for customers.
  • Relied on independent Pharmacy Benefit Managers (PBMs) to negotiate prices with drug manufacturers to keep costs down.
  • Created the “donut hole” to have patients participate to some extent in paying drug costs.
  • Solved the problem some had that there wouldn’t be enough competition in rural states by creating a government run plan that offered another choice if a private one wasn’t avaialble.
  • Reduced the final out-of-pocket costs to 5% of the cost once a patient reached the catastrophic phase.

It was surprising to me that when President Bush signed the Medicare Modernization Act, on December 8th, 2003, 47 percent of senior citizens opposed the bill, and only 26 percent approved it. Among people of all ages who said they were closely following the Medicare debate, 56 percent said they disapproved of the legislation, and 39 percent supported it (ABC News/Washington Post Poll 2003).

It was also interesting that a few months after the bill was signed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that it projected the new law would cost the federal government $534 billion over ten years—35 percent higher than the estimate of $395 billion that lawmakers had relied on when they voted on the final package.

Finally, while the new law had some intermediate steps, the full law would not be implemented until 2006. It would take over two years for people to begin realizing the benefits of the new law.

Part D had an interesting beginning, a program that was unpopular, wouldn’t be implemented for over two years and was projected to be very costly. So, how did this new program do?

  • Did it have enough competition to keep the cost down? The large number of plans and the diversified choices they offered have worked to keep the premiums low. As you can see in the chart below, the year-over-year price increases have been kept low, even going down in some years.

To put this in perspective, if we just used the inflation index to estimate the present-day premium, the price of a $32 dollar premium in 2006 would be over $42 dollars in 2021. Some estimated the premium would rise to $68 dollars a month by 2016.

  • Did independent negotiators work? Over the first decade of operation Part D came in 45% below the initial estimates, saving almost $350 billion.
  • What about the donut hole? While the donut hole worked to ensure beneficiaries had some “skin” in the game, it limited access for some and was complicated for some to estimate what their yearly costs would be. It was phased out as part of “Obamacare” legislation and has disappeared.
  • Were there enough plans to choose from in every state? The average beneficiary has 30 plans to choose from with a minimum of 24 in each state. The government option was never instituted.
  • How did the reduction in cost in catastrophic to 5% do? Initially it reduced the impact on those with high drug costs but, as more and expensive drugs were discovered, the sickest began to be saddled with the most costs.

All in all, Part D did pretty well. The once leery senior citizens, with 46% initially disapproving of the program, now approve it by a 90% margin. Is there room for improvement? Absolutely! The convoluted business model needs to be streamlined. More transparency would help identify inefficiencies. The perverse incentives that drive up list prices need to be fixed. We need a cap on the beneficiaries’ yearly out-of-pocket costs. We need a way to smooth out the month over month out-of-pocket costs.

There are many things that can be done to make the program better. Changing the basic way it operates is not the way to fix it. The saying, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” applies here. One of the reasons that it took so long to get a prescription drug benefit implemented was the fear by many in Congress that we would be turning over more control to the government, that we would be adopting socialistic principles. Part D has proven that a public private partnership works.

I hope this blog has given you a little perspective on Medicare Part D and why it has been successful and how it could be changed. Next week I’ll delve into H.R. 3 and how that proposed legislation wants to change Medicare Part D.

Don’t forget to sign up for our virtual town hall below. Governor Dean and I will dive into H.R. 3 and how we see it impacting Part D.

Best, Thair

Medicare Today Town Hall

Wednesday, June 16, 2021
2:00 p.m. ET

Guest Speakers

Howard Dean 
Former U.S. Presidential Candidate, former Vermont Governor, and Physician

Thair Phillips 
Former President and CEO of RetireSafe

They will discuss:
H.R. 3 – The Lower Drug Costs Now Act

Register Here

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Use your mobile phone to click on the number below: 

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