This sounds like a bad joke. It isn't. Congress decided this week to restore Medicare funding for Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction drugs at a cost of $90 million for 2006. To do so, they had to cut other programs, mostly for our country's most vulnerable adults and children.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Bakersfield, led the charge in favor of Viagra funding, insisting that Congress keep its promise to the drug industry -- which had expected ED drugs to be reimbursed under Medicare in 2006. He apparently thought it was unfair when, a few months ago, Congress decided to instead use those $90 million in taxpayer money for relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
In the ideal world, we would have enough federal dollars for disaster relief, food stamps and Viagra for seniors. In the real world, however, tax cuts and the war in Iraq have meant that billions of dollars in essential programs have to be cut. And so, Congress decided to come to the aid of pharmaceutical companies even if it meant harming parents who were counting on after-school programs, pregnant women who were counting on prenatal care and low-income families who were counting on food stamps.
Since they had already made tremendous cuts to the No Child Left Behind education program, community colleges, and maternal and children's health programs in earlier versions of the same funding bill, Congress chose to pay for Medicare coverage of ED drugs by shifting $120 million in funds intended to prepare for the flu pandemic.
That seems crazy, but it is really just smoke and mirrors. Congress passed a different bill that provides more than $3.5 billion on pandemic flu prevention and treatment efforts -- adding that same $3.5 billion to our deficit for the year. So in truth, there is no Christmas miracle of genuine savings to make up for the $90 million for Viagra and other ED drugs -- other than cuts in health and child care programs and an increase in our national deficit. The kids who believe in Santa now will be paying that debt for many years to come.
How could this happen? I thought the recent public outcry against the ''bridge to nowhere'' would teach this Congress a lesson about wasteful spending. The bridge to nowhere was a $223 million bridge that would have connected the small town of Ketchikan on the Alaska mainland and Gravina Island (population 50), replacing the current seven-minute ferry ride. When federal funding for the bridge generated an avalanche of protest, the funds were moved -- but again, it was smoke and mirrors. Rather than being used for other essential programs, the funds were instead given as a gift to Alaska, to use however it sees fit -- for the bridge or any other purpose. It's kind of like a gift card for your favorite mall instead of for a specific store.
But, amazingly, the bridge disappearing act took care of the public protest. The media and the American public lost interest in the controversy, even though the gift of $223 million for unspecified purposes is equally outrageous at a time when there are not enough funds for food stamps or health care or better schools for children living in poverty.
Of course, Congress' latest gift to the companies that make ED drugs is part of a much larger problem -- a Medicare prescription drug bill that will cost billions, hugely benefit pharmaceutical companies and provide little help to most seniors. The Viagra amendment just makes it more obvious how the American public is getting treated by this Congress (fill in the Freudian metaphor of your choice).
The message is clear: If we ignore this holiday gift to drug companies, as we did with the $223 million gift card to Alaska, we can expect similar gifts next Christmas. And unfortunately, these are the kinds of gifts that can't be returned.
Diana Zuckerman (email@example.com) is president of the National Research Center for Women & Families. She wrote this article for Knight Ridder.