- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

The Senate Finance Committee tomorrow will consider bipartisan Medicare prescription drug legislation, which continues to raise concerns on both sides of the aisle even as Republican leaders praised the measure yesterday.

“Now is the time to act, and we will act,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, who plans to take the bill to the Senate floor Monday and complete it within two weeks.

The measure was formally released yesterday by committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, who crafted it with Max Baucus of Montana, the top Democrat on the panel, and other committee members.

“It’s going to be affordable, and it’s going to give seniors the … right to choose,” Mr. Grassley said of the prescription drug benefit for seniors that the bill would create.

The House is working on a similar bill. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, said yesterday there is “broad agreement” on the measure among his committee, the Ways and Means Committee and House Republican leadership.

Mr. Tauzin said the two House committees would act next week and predicted that a proposal will make it to the president this year.

“For the first time, it looks like the House and Senate are coming together to get something done. And the president is cheered by that,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

But Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said the bill is “flawed seriously” and that while his party colleagues do not intend to block it, they will try to give seniors more help with drug costs and make other changes. Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, criticized the bill as “the first step towards privatizing Medicare.”

Congress has set aside $400 billion to strengthen Medicare and create a prescription drug benefit for seniors. The Grassley-Baucus bill would establish a prescription drug benefit for seniors that would be equivalent whether they choose to stay in the traditional Medicare program or move to Medicare Advantage, a new option that the bill would create.

The latter would use private insurance plans, such as preferred provider organizations (PPOs), to deliver not only drug benefits, but also additional advantages, such as disease management and preventative care in one comprehensive package.

The White House and some Republicans would prefer a more robust drug benefit under the PPO setup to attract seniors there.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) told Mr. Grassley and Mr. Baucus during the weekend that the original draft of their bill was about $20 billion to $30 billion short of $400 billion, according to Senate Republican aides involved in the process.

Having that extra money to work with, Mr. Grassley and Mr. Baucus retooled the measure, adding funds to help low-income seniors with drug costs and telling the CBO to put the rest toward beefing up the drug benefit offered to all Medicare seniors. One of the Democrats’ biggest criticisms is that the bill’s drug coverage is inadequate.

But Senate Finance Committee member Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, said he is likely to oppose the bill in its current form, accusing Mr. Grassley of changing the bill to please Democrats.

Mr. Lott and committee member Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, worry that introducing another drug benefit into Medicare will be too costly for the system, which they say is strained. They also agree with the White House that the prescription drug benefit should be more robust under the PPO setup.

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