James Ridgeway

Medicare's Poison Pill

MOTHER JONES, September/October 2008

Remember Bush's signature health care initiative? My life depends on it—and that's not very reassuring.


I began needing drugs to stay alive one day in the early 1990s, though I did not realize it at the time. I was still a decade away from officially becoming an old person by US government standards, although I'd already started getting my mailings from aarp. I had spent the afternoon in the Plaza Hotel bar in New York City, meeting with an actor who'd said he wanted to make a film from a book I'd written. (To no one's surprise, it never happened.) I'd had a few bourbons without eating anything, and afterward I stopped off at a falafel place. Then I began to vomit blood.

I went to the doctor. He gave me the first of what was to become a series of yearly tests, snaking a fiber-optic device down my throat to look at my upper digestive tract. He announced that I had Barrett's syndrome, a dangerous precancerous condition in the cells of the lower esophagus, caused by years of acid reflux. But fortunately for me, the doctor said, there was a pill, still relatively new at the time, that could save me from a terrible fate—a little purple pill. With that, I became one of the millions of people who take Prilosec and a crop of other prescription drugs for acid reflux, stomach ulcers, and heartburn.

This was when I learned what it means to get old. You're no longer like the average young person, who needs a course of antibiotics to cure a sinus infection, or painkillers for a sprained ankle. You have more in common with people who have life-threatening diseases like aids or cancer: Your access to the drugs you need may determine whether you will live another day, or another 10 years. Or it may determine whether you can see, or whether you can walk across a room. You will take pills until you die.

With that in mind, the question of what the government does to ensure America's elders get their drugs takes on a significance of Darwinian proportions. And so, it was with more than professional interest that I followed President Bush's push for a Medicare prescription drug plan in 2003—his signature health care initiative, and to date his only successful one. Congress passed the plan in a dramatic, clock-stopping session that November amid much media fanfare; two years later, I got a chance to try it out when I joined the 25 million people receiving benefits under what's now known as Medicare Part D.

Selected Works

Medicare's Poison Pill
Remember Bush's signature health care initiative? My life depends on it—and that's not very reassuring.
In Search of John Doe No. 2
The story the Feds never told about the Oklahoma City bombing
The 5 Unanswered Questions About 9/11
What the 9/11 Report Failed to Tell Us
It's All for Sale
The Control of Global Resources
Blood in the Face
The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture
Blood in the Face
A film by Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway
A Comedy About Running for President by Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway