- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2000

Republicans fleshed out their proposals yesterday to make it easier and cheaper for the elderly to get prescription drugs, a plan President Clinton immediately attacked as a sham.

"I really hope we can proceed on this very, very important project without turning it into a political issue," said Rep. Bill Archer, Texas Republican and House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

Mr. Archer held a hearing yesterday on the competing plans and predicted committee action on a bill as early as next week.

At the hearing, Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chief architect, provided more details about a bill Republicans are developing to enlist private insurers to sell government-subsidized and approved prescription drug insurance policies to Medicare beneficiaries.

"We believe the private sector can do a great job," said Mr. Thomas, but added new reassurances that "the government will be there if necessary."

In addition, Mr. Thomas said the Republicans would include a Medicare "lockbox" provision to protect the program's small surpluses from spending raids.

Vice President Al Gore last week proposed a similar financial safeguard as part of his presidential campaign platform, and the idea has for some time had bipartisan proponents.

Republicans also highlighted Democratic endorsements for their plan from Reps. Ralph M. Hall of Texas and Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota. They failed, after trying hard, to get more.

Mr. Clinton and most congressional Democrats were critical.

At a White House event with Democratic lawmakers from rural areas, which often are overlooked by private insurance companies, Mr. Clinton said the Republican plan "claims to help everybody but is a false hope for most."

"If we were in deficit and trying to do this, I would understand why we would say, 'Well, we can't help everybody, so we'll just help a few,' " Mr. Clinton said. "But that's not the situation. We can afford to do this right."

Republicans accused Mr. Clinton of misrepresenting their plan for political purposes.

"Instead of trying to work with us, they're trying to create friction," Mr. Archer said.

Mr. Thomas announced the Republican plan would have several provisions designed to ensure that help with drug costs would be available to all older Americans.

First, he said, the government would pay insurers 30 percent to 35 percent subsidies to ensure that new drug policies are affordable to all not just retirees with the lowest incomes, whose drug insurance premiums would be paid for directly by Medicare under both the Republican and Clinton plans.

Mr. Thomas also said the government would act as the "insurer of last resort" if private plans failed to offer adequate coverage options across the country.

Under the Republican plan, out-of-pocket costs would vary with the private plan the patient chose, although all policies must provide minimum benefits and protection from very high drug bills.

As an illustration, Mr. Thomas estimated that with the help of government subsidies, an insurance company could offer a drug policy with monthly premiums of $35 to $40, a $200 to $250 annual deductible, 50 percent co-payments and catastrophic protection covering out-of-pocket charges after $5,000 to $6,000 in annual spending.

In contrast, Mr. Clinton wants a standard drug benefit under Medicare. Those who opted for the coverage would pay a monthly $26 premium, which would eventually rise to $50, no deductible and a 50 percent copayment toward prescriptions. The maximum annual reimbursement would be $1,000 at first, eventually rising to $2,500.

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