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Give seniors prescription relief

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The Bush administration is proposing that pharmacy discount cards be offered to all older Americans by the end of next year in an attempt to help alleviate the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs. Bush's plan would rely on companies that buy prescription drugs in bulk to pass on discounts to Medicare patients. Cardholders would pay a set fee for the membership, which would allow them to get a break on an approved pill or injection.

Presently, most people on Medicare have no prescription coverage except during hospitalization. The Bush proposal would provide some relief to older Americans, some of whom have gone so far as to travel to Canada and Mexico to buy discounted prescription drugs. But because the discounts would be determined by private businesses, critics rightly warn there would likely be limits on medicines that can be discounted, limits on stores that will accept such cards and price breaks that won't always help senior citizens.

Any discount would be welcome, but the personal savings achieved under this plan needs to be substantial to extend meaningful assistance to people on fixed incomes who must carefully weigh the cost of prescription drugs against other necessities. According to Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., where one in five residents depend on Medicare for their health-care needs, most discount cards average a 10 percent savings. "The average Medicare beneficiary spends $1,700 on prescription drugs, a savings of $170 a year still leaves them with staggering bills," Graham said.

Political insiders say Bush's proposal is a pre-emptive strike to shape debate in the Senate Finance Committee, which is about to draft legislation to update the 36-year-old Medicare law and to add drug benefits. Bush would prefer to expand the role of private plans.

In most marketplace issues, the less government tinkering the better. But when new consumer group reports suggest that major drugmakers spend nearly twice as much to advertise their medicines as they do to research and develop them, it would appear that greater examination of the industry is warranted.

In particular, more government resources are needed to check patent claims by pharmaceutical companies that are trying to delay approval of less expensive generic versions of their drugs.

While discount cards should be explored, many believe the president's plan is an interim suggestion, and that ultimately, the federal government will need to negotiate prices with drugmakers on patients' behalf.

Pharmaceutical companies should view this debate as an opportunity to reassess their business practices and take steps to ensure that people are not forced to do business out of the country to obtain the drugs their doctors say they need to survive or ensure a certain quality of life.

Yes, the pharmaceutical industry needs to make a certain degree of profit to ensure research and development of new drugs. Yet, what good are first-rate drugs to senior citizens if they are priced out of the market?