Jan 09 2006

Shelby: Drug plan is too complicated

The Daily Mountain Eagle

ED HOWELL

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby said repeatedly Monday that the new Medicare prescription plan was too complicated, but generally backed the plan as a way to reduce drug prices for the elderly.

At a town meeting in Jasper, Shelby heard several questions about the program, which has received criticism for being too confusing for the elderly - or other officials - to figure out, despite hotlines and printed material handed out by pharmacies and drug companies. Federal officials have said the number of people signing up for the new program is much lower than anticipated.

"It's too complicated. It needs to be where I can understand it," Shelby said. "It is too, too, too complicated."

The New York Times also reported Sunday that people who signed up for the Medicare part D prescription drug plan are being denied their medications or being overcharged at pharmacies due to federal red tape. Maine, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Vermont have acted to make sure low-income seniors in those states get their prescriptions as promised - but not delivered - under the new program.

May 15 is the last day for seniors to sign up for the plan to get immediate help. Anyone signing up afterward would have to wait until 2007 to receive benefits.

Shelby said one woman called him up recently to give a positive review.

"I just want to call and thank you for this," he quoted the caller as saying, adding she had worked through her local Walgreens to obtain cheaper prescription drugs under the program.

Shelby said he could not advise anyone what to do under the program, but suggested they call their own pharmacist to see what plan would work best for them. He said it may work out that the new program will work for a Medicare patient, but it may turn out that it is best not to use the program.

"The thrust behind it was to give you some options," Shelby said. "We're hoping this will help seniors."

However, Monday, he heard of problems with calling for help on federal hotlines, which repeated problems heard nationally of long waits. He also heard some operators on the phone line have been hard to understand.

He admitted some people have been dissatisfied with the program because of its complicated nature. Asked if he would vote for it again if a vote were held now, he said, "I might vote for it, but I'd ask more questions."

Shelby said part of the problem is that Congress passes laws, which are then interpreted by officials in the executive branch of the federal government.

When Sylvia Brown from Hatley Health Services suggested placing local contacts for people to work with on the prescription problem, Shelby did not seem interested in having more government officials to deal with.

"I don't have a lot of trust in bureaucrats or calling the government," he said.

Shelby also said that the practice of restricting medication under the program had become "too much of a strait jacket," adding he hoped the problems will be worked out in the next 90 days.

On other issues:

* Shelby said he planned to vote for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito Jr., who participated Monday in the first day of confirmation hearings. "We need about two more conservatives on the Supreme Court. We need to tilt to common sense," he said. He said at least one woman told him she would not vote for Shelby if he voted for Alito, but he said the voters would have that choice in the next election.

* Shelby said the United States did not need to "cut and run" from Iraq . "Our prestige in the world won't allow itself to cut and run," he said. "Don't ever believe the world will love us, but they'll respect us. They respect military power." Shelby said Iraq may not wind up looking like a Western democracy, but would have the basics of a democracy in the end. He added that hopefully the U.S. will have fewer troops in the country by next year.

* Shelby said the national and local economies were in good shape, adding that Corridor X will open up new opportunities for Walker County . He said residents should lobby Gov. Bob Riley for funding to complete Future Interstate 22. "The funding of Corridor X ought to be the No. 1 priority of the state transportation department," he said to the only applause of the meeting. "I'll do what I can to complete it." He also said he wanted to "revamp engineering and science" schools in the state to help obtain better skills for the workforce.

* On President Bush's admission of warrantless eavesdropping on telephone conversations and e-mails to combat terrorism, Shelby defended Bush to a point. "The president has spoken very candidly about the eavesdropping," Shelby said, adding Bush was correct when he said he notified some members of Congress about the matter. He said it was a good program as long as it does not "get into everyone's business" and still helps combat terrorism. However, he said the courts would have to rule on whether the legal advice Bush received about the methods was correct. He did read at length from a copy of the Constitution, concluding that the Fourth Amendment deals with forbidding "unreasonable" searches and seizures, as opposed to all searches.

* Shelby said Russia is helping Iran and others to build nuclear programs of their own, adding there is not much the U.S. can do except to go through diplomatic channels in Europe . He said the U.S. is doing all that it can do at this point, and that an invasion does not appear to be a good option. "The proliferation of nuclear materials will grow," he said, indicating that North Korea is doing similar development and Saddam Hussein had wanted his own nuclear program before being toppled in Iraq . "It's a dangerous world. If it gets into the wrong hands, people could use them for the wrong reasons," he said. Shelby expressed puzzlement as to why Russian President Vladimir Putin would help with the nuclear activity. "I don't know what's going on with Putin. Very few people do," he said.

* Shelby said he still preferred his idea of a national flat tax on income, although he preferred to do away with income taxes altogether - an idea he said would likely not happen. Responding to an advocate for a national sales tax in place of an income tax, he said that he preferred the flat tax, but was not opposed to the national sales tax as an alternative if it replaced other taxes. His concern with the sales tax would be that other taxes would be added to it, which has happened at times in Europe .

* After the meeting, Shelby said he was concerned about the deadly mining incident in West Virginia . Shelby spokeswoman Katie Boyd said he has signed a letter asking for a congressional oversight hearing for the Mine Safety Health Administration. The agency has not had an oversight hearing since 2001, she said. "Sen. Shelby feels in light of the recent tragedy in West Virginia , these hearings are essential to insuring the health and safety of miners across the country," Boyd said. Shelby said mining is a dangerous occupation, and officials needed to do all they can to make the industry safe.