By Dr. Yanira Cruz
Hispanics are 50 percent more likely than whites to die from diabetes and liver disease.
This gap could widen if lawmakers proceed with a plan to alter the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. The Part D program has increased access to prescription drugs for millions of Hispanic seniors. Without it, they would struggle to afford the medicines they need to stay healthy.
Implemented in 2006, Part D provides affordable prescription drugs to seniors and those with disabilities. It does this by subsidizing the cost of private prescription insurance plans. Seniors pick from a variety of plans and pay a monthly premium, and the government picks up the rest of the tab.
Part D is cost effective. In its first decade, the program cost 45 percent less than the Congressional Budget Office initially projected.
Medicare Part D isn’t just affordable for the government — it’s also affordable for beneficiaries. Some Part D drug plans cost as little as $14.60 each month.
Part D is, quite literally, a lifesaver for seniors who would not be able to afford their prescriptions on their own. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that Part D saved the lives of up to 26,000 individuals in its first year.
Hispanics, especially, have benefited from Part D. Following Part D’s implementation, adherence to heart medications among Hispanics increased by 60 percent. Thanks to this program, Hispanic seniors save an average of $143 a year in out-of-pocket expenses.
With these sorts of savings, it’s no wonder that nine out of 10 Part D participants report satisfaction with their coverage.
Even though Part D is working exceptionally well, some members of Congress think that it would work even better if the government negotiated the prices of drugs offered under Part D plans.
Currently, the government lets private insurers negotiate prices with drug makers. Insurers fight hard to secure discounts. After all, bigger discounts enable insurers to offer lower-cost plans that attract new senior customers. The CBO recently lowered its Part D spending projections because insurers have obtained “significantly higher” than expected rebates, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
The government wouldn’t have any more negotiating power than private insurers. In fact, the CBO has warned that giving federal officials the power to negotiate prices would have a “negligible effect” on Part D drug costs.
The only way the government could substantially lower drug spending would be to refuse to cover certain medicines. A move like that would be disastrous for seniors. Right now, each Part D plan has its own list of covered drugs. If seniors know they need a particular medicine, they can enroll in a plan that covers that drug.
If the government stopped covering certain drugs, those medicines would be excluded from all plans. Seniors would lose access to those medicines unless they could afford to pay for them out of pocket. That wouldn’t be feasible for many seniors, especially Hispanics. The typical Hispanic Medicare beneficiary earned less than $13,000 in 2014.
Reducing the number of drugs covered by Part D would harm Hispanics and other vulnerable populations. There’s no reason for Congress to mess with Medicare Part D. It is cost-effective, saves lives, and makes health care more accessible and equitable.
Dr. Yanira Cruz is the president and CEO of the National Hispanic Council on Aging.