In the hurricane of Donald Trump chaos that has been the last two weeks, his election bribe to senior citizens posing as his "healthcare plan" kind of got lost. Because it was centuries ago in Trump time, a reminder: Trump wants to send every Medicare enrollee in the prescription drug program a $200 "Trump card" to be used for purchasing prescription drugs. This month. Before the election. But it's not about politics, they say.
The administration had been talking with the pharmaceutical industry about trying to come up with some kind of price reduction program for Medicare, talks that ended up being derailed by chief of staff Mark Meadows’ demand that the industry paid for these cards. Having failed there, they immediately switched gears and quite literally dropped it at the last minute, Dan Diamond at Politico reports. "Trump abruptly announced the drug-discount cards on Sept. 24, a last-minute decision that surprised even some of his own health officials," Diamond says. For the past two weeks, health officials have been scrambling trying to make it happen, and career staff is pissed. "We basically didn't know until the public found out too," one health official said. "It's turning into this last-minute, thrown-together thing," another HHS official told Diamond.
The funding is going to come from the Medicare trust fund, and it's not cheap. It will cost $7.9 billion, including about $51 million to create and distribute the cards. That's taxpayer money that is supposed to be paying benefits for seniors, not on Trump's campaign. On top of that $7.9 billion, the administration is proposing spending $19 million this month, to send letters out to seniors hyping the plan. That's possibly because they aren't certain they could have the cards land in seniors' mailboxes before the election, so they want to make sure a letter signed by Trump reaches them before they vote. Just to be clear, this is the administration taking money away from seniors' Medicare to give it back to them, with some extra fees and costs tacked on for the cost of mailing and production. It's a boondoggle. It's worse.
"It's a shameless stunt that steals billions from Medicare in order to fund a legally dubious scheme that’s clearly intended to benefit President Trump's campaign right before Election Day." That's how Rep. Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, describes it and that's pretty much what it is. Diamond doesn't really find anyone in Health and Human Services who isn't a Trump flak that will say differently. That's because it's coming from Meadows and from Seema Verma, the head of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the one administration official who rivals Trump in her efforts to promote herself using her taxpayer-paid position.
Up until a few weeks ago, Verma was firmly opposed to dipping into the Medicare trust fund, two officials told Diamond. Last year, in fact, she gave a speech saying "The Medicare Trustees report projects the Medicare trust fund will run out by 2026. […] Medicare for All advocates say they want free health care, but in the end, someone's always picking up the tab. In this case, it's American taxpayers." That was then and talking about social Democrats. This is now and getting her boss reelected, and never mind the fact that very high unemployment right now because of the pandemic means that the trust fund is smaller because there isn't as much funding flowing into it from people's payroll taxes.
"It's an incredibly large amount of money to be spending [and] it's not really solving any systemic problem," Stacie Dusetzina, a Medicare expert at Vanderbilt, said. She calls the cards a "poorly designed experiment." The administration says that they're doing this as a "test" of whether having the $200 card will help seniors take their medicine more regularly because of the lower cost. But it's not designed as a test, Dusetzina points out. She told Diamond that if this were a real test, it would be set up with a randomly selected test group who got the cards and a control group who did not, to see how drug usage was affected. This isn't that. It's every senior on the prescription drug program getting a $200 bribe at election time with Trump's name and/or image on the letter and/or card.
"This is a solution in search of a problem and a bald play for votes in the form of money in pockets," said an HHS official who's seen the proposal. And it's coming at a time when Trump appears to be losing senior voters at a "historic rate."
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