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Newt Gingrich urged Congress on Tuesday to use negotiations over a Medicare prescription drug benefit as a step toward transforming the nation's entire health care system.
Since a federal plan to help seniors pay for prescription drugs is
the largest single domestic program change since Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society' of 1965,'' the former House Speaker said,anything less than this effort will lead to a politically and financially unsustainable outcome.''
With Congress in recess, House and Senate staffers are hammering out differences in versions of the Medicare prescription benefit. President Bush has urged Congress to pass such a measure and the Republican leaders of Congress would like to complete the legislation before the next election year.
Gingrich, a Republican from Georgia, led a symposium at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank on
transforming'' rather thanreforming'' Medicare. Gingrich, a senior fellow at the institute, co-authored a book entitled ``Saving Lives & Saving Money'' that deals with his vision of modernizing health care.
Medicare recipients must be given the option of staying in the current system and adding a prescription drug benefit, Gingrich said. Rather than coercing them into leaving the system as they know it, there should be enough incentive that they'll want to leave.
Both plans would provide prescription drug benefits costing about $400 billion over 10 years, with the option to remain in the present Medicare system if patients so choose. The House bill, unlike the Senate's, would in 2010 create a system requiring the traditional program to compete with private health plans based on price.
Gingrich said the right bill can create a Medicare system that is less expensive than projections by the Congressional Budget Office while allowing seniors to stay in the 1965 designed system if they choose.
House and Senate conferees should view the Senate and House bills ``as building blocks rather than boundaries,'' Gingrich said.
To do that, Medicare must embrace 21st Century technology, information systems and health care programs, he said.
He cited a computerized system that allows a senior's pharmacist and doctors to know all the drugs the recipient is taking. Such systems usually reduce the total medications and prevent often dangerous interactions between drugs, he said. Likewise, having doctors e-mail in prescriptions reduces errors and easily feeds into a centralized data bank on each patient.
Some privacy advocates have expressed concern over such efforts to pull together electronic databases of patient care, fearing the information could be misappropriated by outside entities. Gingrich did not address privacy concerns.
He compared a recently enacted Florida law mandating that every doctor's prescription order ``be legibly written'' with a Tufts University insurance plan that issued free BlackBerrys to the 5,000 doctors in its network, thus providing wireless e-prescribing.
``The contrast between the 20th Century of health care delivery and the 21st is very blatant in these approaches,'' he said.
If airlines can quickly convert to electronic ticketing, hospitals can quickly convert to electronic admissions, Gingrich said. A key to transforming the entire health care system is to transform Medicare -- ``since Medicare is the largest single payer.''
He also cited a Georgia-based company called Evercare, which specializes in care for the least healthy senior citizens in long term care facilities, based on statistics that show that a very small percentage of Medicare recipients create half of its expenses.
He said the company puts the patient's entire medical and drug record in a lap-top and has a nurse practitioner responsible for that patient's care and medications.
The average patient is reduced from 22 drugs a day to six,'' said Gingrich.The result is fewer medication complications and a 50 percent reduction in hospitalization.''
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c.2003 Cox News Service