BJ Cavnor: Medicare Part D great benefit to Washingtonians

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Ten years ago last month, Congress created a Medicare prescription drug benefit that has quietly revolutionized the pharmaceutical sector.

Medicare Part D provides access to medicines that improve patient outcomes. It's bending down our country's health care cost curve. And the drug program helps fuel the research behind tomorrow's breakthroughs. Policymakers should see to it that Washington's residents continue to reap the many benefits of Part D.

Medicare Part D's results have been impressive. Today, 9 in 10 American seniors have comprehensive prescription coverage. Expenses for both seniors and taxpayers are remarkably low: The program has cost 45 percent less than originally anticipated, and the average monthly premium paid by seniors here in Washington is about $58.

Over 90 percent of Part D policyholders are pleased with their coverage. Few health care programs garner such high levels of satisfaction.

And Medicare Part D helps reduce health care spending overall by improving seniors' well-being. In many cases, prescription medications mitigate conditions that require costly inpatient or physician-administered therapies. Researchers at Harvard have confirmed that patients who gain drug coverage save $1,200 annually in total health spending.

Part D also propels further pharmaceutical advancements that make it possible for Washingtonians to live longer and healthier lives. Since 1950, Americans' average life expectancy has grown by a decade — and it continues to climb upwards. Cutting-edge therapies are helping more and more Americans survive deadly diseases.

Consider cancer: The life expectancy of a cancer patient today is three years higher than it was in 1980. And with nearly 1,000 new cancer treatments currently in development, the options for patients — and the chances of successful recovery — continue to increase.

HIV/AIDS is no longer a terminal illness; a 20-year-old diagnosed with the disease can expect to live an additional 50 years. HIV/AIDS death rates have fallen 79 percent since 1995. Americans' cholesterol levels are down. Fatalities from heart disease fell by 30 percent between 2001 and 2011.

Perhaps the greatest advance in pharmaceutical medicine in the past year is the approval of two new medications to cure hepatitis C, with another in development. There are an estimated 3.2 million Americans living with hepatitis C, the leading cause of liver cancer in the United States. These new medications may cure up to 90 percent of patients.

Helping seniors

This incredible progress is directly attributable to advances in pharmaceutical research and expanded access to the drugs these breakthroughs make possible. And there's a great deal more innovation to come.

Here in Washington, more than 3,600 clinical trials have taken place in our state's hospitals, medical schools, and research centers since 1999. Nationwide there are 3,400 medicines currently in development. Over 400 of these new drugs are focused on the leading chronic diseases affecting seniors, including diabetes, heart disease, depression, and arthritis.

That's good news for patient health and economic growth. When left untreated, chronic conditions can cost as much as a trillion dollars a year by one estimate. And no dollar amount can calculate the cost in suffering from a chronic disease for a patient and their loved ones.

Researchers are working especially hard in developing a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. The condition currently affects some 5 million seniors — a number that could triple by 2050 — and accounts for $200 billion in direct medical costs each year. Over 15 million Americans provide more than $200 billion in unpaid care. These costs of care take a tremendous toll on families providing for patients.

Our best defense against illness is prevention, but with the diagnosis of disease, we need new and more effective medications. In Medicare Part D's 10 years, the gains from pharmaceutical innovation — in Washington and across the country — have been nothing short of staggering. Seniors have access to cutting-edge medicines that are saving lives and controlling costs. By keeping Part D strong, we can accomplish even more in the next 10 years.


BJ Cavnor is executive director of One in Four Chronic Health.