The US prescription drug benefits agency Medicare has hit the headlines with the news that its new coverage law, which comes into effect in 2006, will include so-called “lifestyle” medicines approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Specifically what has got sub-editors across the US excited is that Medicare will now cover drugs that treat erectile dysfunction, such as Pfizer’s Viagra (sildenafil), Bayer’s Levitra (vardenafil), and Eli Lilly’s Cialis (tadalafil). Beneficiaries to the new system will pay monthly premiums to participate in private drug plans certified by Medicare and the US government is expected to pay a minimum three-quarters of the premium cost.

The new prescription coverage is expected to cost more than $500 billion dollars over the next decade and the figures being banded around are causing considerable anger in some quarters, notably at Citizens Against Government Waste, which describes itself as the USA’s largest non-profit organisation dedicated to “eliminating waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in government.” The group’s president, Tom Schatz, said: “Not to stiff the elderly from having a little fun, but asking Uncle Sam to pay for the romance of 76 million baby boomers will quicken the impending collapse of Medicare.” CAGW added: “With Medicare’s prescription drug benefit already estimated to cost $534 billion, exceeding by a third the original amount promised by the White House and congressional leaders, the cost of healthcare for the elderly will be a crushing burden on working taxpayers.”

This view is not shared by all however, and Dr Ira Sharlip of the University of California, San Francisco told the Los Angeles Times that “these are drugs that treat a condition that compromises the quality of life but doesn’t threaten life [yet] there are many drugs that are approved for quality-of-life indications. It wouldn’t be right to single out (impotence drugs) as frivolous when there are so many others,” such as drugs for indigestion or mild pain, he added.