Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? -Mark 8:18, NRSV
The emphasis of last month's column on Social Security reform was an example of the need for Christians to be aware of the facts of issues in the public arena. An important part of what it means to make peace and to do justice is being aware of unjust policies and structures, particularly those that hurt the most vulnerable, including the elderly. In other words, we need to have eyes to see!
While I do not want to get hung up on current political issues, these are important issues that affect many people. As "ambassadors for Christ," we need to speak truth to the government and advocate for justice and peace. Another issue that promises to be a political hot potato is Medicare reform, in particular the prescription drug benefit that will go into effect in 2006 as a result of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.
To give credit where credit is due, the fact that the current administration managed to get a prescription drug benefit enacted is, in itself, a significant step. At the time, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) endorsed the new law because it was a step-albeit a small one-in the right direction, providing some relief from escalating prescription drug prices and some assistance for low-income seniors.
However, the plan has several serious problems, especially when the full plan goes into effect on January 1, 2006. The more problematic provisions are:
What does all this mean? Consider the following example:
A couple has life savings of $10,000 and Social Security income of $1,000/month. They have no other assets. While they fall below 135% of the Federal poverty line for a couple ($16,362), they will still have to pay premiums and the deductible and will have a coverage gap, because the value of their savings is greater than $9,000. The husband's prescription costs are $250/month and the wife's are $75/month, for a total of $3,900/year. The chart below shows how the Medicare drug plan would cover these costs.
The total cost for the couple with the Medicare prescription plan is $2,752.50 compared to the $3,900 without the plan. This is a 29% savings. Notice that the wife saves only $67.50 out of $900 (7.9%).
The bottom line is that many of those who need this benefit the most will not benefit much, if at all. Also, costs paid by recipients will rise steadily. According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2011-five years after the plan goes into effect-the average monthly premium will be $49 (up from $35), the deductible will be $380 (instead of $250), and the coverage gap will be $4,315, up from $2,850.
Other aspects of the new law which seem particularly harmful for the neediest are:
"Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey!" -Isaiah 10:1-2, NRSV
This passage applies here as well as to the Social Security reform issue. The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, as it stands now, is unjust to those who need it most. The advertised goal was to give significant relief to those who could not afford prescription drugs or health insurance that would include prescription drug coverage. Instead, in many cases, the relief will be minimal.
This is another issue on which Christians need to speak out to the government. The current law needs to be revised to provide better coverage for low-income people. In particular, the asset test needs to be reexamined, as well as the coverage gap. Mennonite Church USA will be discussing health care access at its assembly in Charlotte, N.C., this July (for more information on the MC USA resolution, see <http://www.charlotte2005.org/conventions/delegates/Healthcare_Access_Resolution.pdf>). This would be one opportunity to discuss this issue and to formulate alternatives that are more just. Other denominations should consider taking up the issue as well.
Last month I proposed some ways that Christians could be involved in important national issues. Applied to the issue of the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003, these include: