Don’t let Walker dismantle SeniorCare

Capital Times (Madison, Wis.), April 6, 2011

Under Republican and Democratic governors, Wisconsin has for the better part of a decade been an innovator — and a national leader — when it comes to providing senior citizens with affordable access to prescription medications. Wisconsin’s approach has made these prescriptions available at a significantly lower cost and with better coverage than the federal Medicare Part D scheme.

Unfortunately, in his rush to dismantle public services and the social safety net that Wisconsin has constructed as a bipartisan legacy, Gov. Scott Walker now proposes to make damaging changes to the state’s SeniorCare program — changes that would harm older Wisconsinites. Those changes would rob the nation of an outstanding model for containing health care costs while ensuring that needed drugs are accessible and affordable to our most vulnerable citizens.

A review by the Wisconsin chapter of Physicians for a National Health Program — a group with deep roots in the state’s medical community — has determined: “Walker’s proposed budget would change and effectively dismantle SeniorCare so that it would only fill in gaps in private insurance coverage, at a higher cost to seniors and with continued gaps in coverage. If this change is allowed to take place, many seniors will not be able to afford needed medications, leading to more illness, suffering and death.”

That’s a tough assessment but, to our view, the physicians group has raised legitimate concerns.

By any reasonable measure, SeniorCare is not just a success but a public policy jewel.

Established as a result of the health care initiatives of former Gov. Tommy Thompson (who also served as President George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services) and extended in 2007 and again in 2009 with bipartisan support from Wisconsin’s congressional delegation, SeniorCare now has an enrollment of 91,000 Wisconsin seniors. With a $30 annual enrollment fee, co-payments ranging from $5 to $15, and no gaps in coverage, the physicians’ analysis argues, “SeniorCare is a proven program that works. In addition to providing exceptional drug coverage, the program also saves taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by negotiating for discounts from drug companies.”

For that reason, the physicians group has called on U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to block any federal waivers that would undermine the program.

The call to Sebelius notes: “SeniorCare is financially solvent. It currently runs a $20 million surplus and saved $50 million in drug costs in 2009 alone. There is no need to dismantle this program except for political ideology.”

Sebelius should heed the call, as should members of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation. We have no doubt that members such as Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., and Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, will defend SeniorCare. But we genuinely hope that Republican members of the delegation will stand with them. Even in these times of so much political and ideological wrangling, all reasonable officials — no matter what their politics — should be able to agree on the necessity of extending access to affordable care while at the same time containing costs. That’s what SeniorCare does, and Scott Walker should not be allowed to dismantle it.