Last week, the House of Representatives voted to bar Medicaid and Medicare from paying for Viagra and similar medicines. Considering that often Congress itself is quite impotent, I was surprised that they didn't have more empathy for those who suffered from this problem. Their reasoning was that the American people should not pay for "lifestyle drugs." We pay for the lavish lifestyles of oil magnates and other super-rich people who get tax breaks. Isn't that more offensive to you than paying to help people who have a medical condition?
Considering everything else going on in the world, whether the government should or shouldn't pay for these drugs is not a top priority for me. On the other hand, the idea of federal programs paying for these prescriptions doesn't bother me, especially when I think about all the ridiculous things that we taxpayers pay for. Billions of dollars are spent on wasteful "pork" projects every year. Some examples over the recent past include authorizing $102 million to study screwworms and a mere $50 million for an indoor rainforest in Iowa. NASCAR gets $92 million in federal economic incentives, while poor Tiger Woods only gets $100,000 in federal grant money for his foundation. In this context, paying for these drugs doesn't seem all that frivolous to me.
There are a couple of reasons. This administration has been consistently prudish. How silly does it seem now that the chairman of the FCC got personally involved when Janet Jackson's breast was exposed for a microsecond on TV? Remember when former Attorney General Ashcroft insisted that a statue be draped to cover its breasts? So it's not surprising that today's politicians would be offended by the idea of helping people have a sex life.
But I think a bigger reason is the image that these medicines have. When Hugh Hefner brags about his using Viagra, that doesn't make us want to pay for his dalliances at the Mansion. And we have been inundated by ads for these drugs. There are even billboards at baseball stadiums advertising them. It seems a little ironic that baseball claims to be so opposed to some performance enhancing drugs but not to others.
So it's precisely because of the way the drug companies have chosen to market these drugs that seems to justify the position of those who don't want the government to pay for them. Erectile dysfunction is not presented as a serious medical problem by the media. We see couples shopping or in outdoor bathtubs, and sexy women breathlessly tell us how happy they are that their partners use the medicine. That famous "four-hour erection" line in the ads may be a legitimate health warning, but I'll bet it makes a lot of people look into getting the drug and asking their doctor, "If I take half a pill will it last only two hours?"
So, it's a shame that Congress has been blinded by prudishness and peppy commercials. They can't see that sometimes this drug is not just something that people add to their love lives like a martini or their favorite CD. Twenty years from now when some of the Congressmen who voted for this ban start to use these products, it won't matter to them whether Medicare will pay. Unlike the general public, they'll have no problem coming up with the money. Like Bob Dole before them, all they'll have to do is a few commercials for these drugs.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver