- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2003

Conservative Medicare reformers yesterday denounced the Senate’s prescription-drug bill as a bureaucratic monstrosity that would lead to soaring entitlement costs for taxpayers and federal price controls for pharmaceutical companies.

In a Capitol Hill briefing on the bipartisan Senate Finance Committee measure, top conservative think tank officials partly blamed the White House for the emerging legislation, complaining that the administration has appeared too hasty to acquiesce to the Senate bill’s Medicare reforms.

“The new approach looks a lot like the old approach,” said Joseph Antos, health care analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “It’s going to raise Medicare’s unfunded liability by a staggering amount, somewhere between $8 trillion and $13 trillion.”

The administration originally proposed a more market-oriented plan that called for a broader range of choices among competing private health care plans for senior citizens, an approach that had conservative health care reformers cheering.

“But the plan that came out of committee is pretty close to 180 degrees off that proposal,” said Michael Franc, the Heritage Foundation’s vice president for government affairs.

“This bill creates a road map for a very heavy, oppressive regime,” Mr. Franc said.

Although the pending $400 billion bill was the product of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the panel’s ranking Democrat, Mr. Franc said the administration encouraged “a sense of the inevitability in the process by saying ‘there will be a bill.’”

Approval of the Senate measure is expected next week. It adds prescription-drug coverage to the federal health care program for the elderly and disabled, and establishes competition with private insurance companies who must offer drug coverage for seniors beginning in 2006.

In the past two years, conservative policy advocates have been among the administration’s biggest supporters in fights over tax cuts, energy development, defense spending and other domestic issues. But now for the first time, there appears to be a sharp break over health care reform between the White House and its allies, who complain that Mr. Bush is too eager to expand the size of government.

“With the support of the Bush administration, or at least with the White House’s passive acquiescence, Congress appears on a course to enacting a huge new entitlement aimed at middle-income Americans,” said Stuart M. Butler, a senior domestic-policy analyst at Heritage.

“President Bush likely will sign whatever bill emerges. And as President Clinton’s Medicare administrator puts it, ‘In signing it, as he will surely be forced to do, he will preside over the biggest expansion of government health benefits since the Great Society.’” Mr. Butler wrote on the Heritage Foundation’s Web site.

“This legislation makes a mockery of sensible budget control or prudent reform,” he said.

Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a health care policy advocacy group, said the Senate bill “is based upon bad policy.”

“Grassley and Baucus insisted that those on traditional Medicare must get a drug benefit equal to those joining the new market-based option. That violates Bush’s important principle, which the entire free-market-policy community supports, that the new drug benefit should be a carrot to encourage seniors to join modern health plans that can provide better benefits,” she said.

All sides in the debate, even those who support the Grassley-Baucus plan, acknowledge that the bill is fiendishly complex and difficult to understand. And much of what the bill would do is only now coming into focus.

A “quick analysis” of the bill that the Heritage Foundation is circulating on Capitol Hill focuses in part on the considerable extent to which the government would collect data on prescription drugs, their prices and even their users, raising privacy concerns.

“Medicare will need to collect all of the price and volume data from all the plans for each and every drug, for each and every prescription, and for each and every beneficiary,” the analysis said.

“This will inevitably lead to congressional hearings targeting the high cost/high volume drugs that are costing Medicare the most money. These political pressures will in turn trigger demands for the inevitable ‘cost containment’ [price and access control] legislation,” the study said.

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