Funding for impotence drugs riles lawmakers

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The federal government will spend nearly $2 billion in the next decade on male impotence drugs under its Medicare program, according to a new cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office that is fueling some lawmakers’ efforts to end that spending.

Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, is sponsoring a bill to prohibit most erectile dysfunction drug sales under Medicare, the government’s insurance program for the elderly and disabled, and released the cost figures yesterday as part of his effort.

“It’s a number that’s just shocking,” Mr. King said. “When you’re looking at it starting out at $90 million a year [in fiscal year 2006] and goes up [by 2015] to $280 million — that’s not loose change. That’s a huge pile of recreational drug bills.”

The federal body that runs Medicare ruled earlier this year that drugs to treat male impotence such as Viagra, Cialis and Levitra will be covered as of Jan. 1, 2006, when the full drug coverage program created by Congress two years ago takes effect.

Jeff Trewhitt, a spokesman for Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said his group was still looking at the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimate and would not comment. But he said the organization is opposed to Mr. King’s bill.

“Products that treat erectile dysfunction are part of the overall treatment of patients. Medicare and Medicaid patients should not be like second-class citizens when their diseases are treated,” he said.

The CBO estimated that Medicare spending on impotence drugs would be $1.93 billion over 10 years, with $730 million being spent in the first five years. After 2010, the CBO estimate shows spending increasing by $20 million a year and figures that the government will be spending $280 million a year by 2015.

In announcing their decision to include the medications, Medicare officials said the law required them to cover drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration that are medically necessary.

Women’s groups were outraged at the time, saying it was hypocritical for the government to cover erectile dysfunction medications while not ensuring access to birth control for women of all ages.

“We call on the Bush White House to drop its opposition to the morning-after pill to ensure that women have equitable access to prescriptions for their reproductive health. This issue isn’t about Viagra; it is about fairness and equality,” said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Mr. King’s bill has 26 co-sponsors, ranging from conservatives and limited-government Republicans such as Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. of Virginia to Democrats such as Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia and Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.

But Mr. King said he wants more sponsors before calling for hearings.

“We’ve got to beat this drum and get more people to sign on. You would think this would be the easiest bill in Congress to pass,” he said. “If we can’t pass this legislation and Medicare moves forward and funds recreational sex drugs for seniors, then what couldn’t we fund with the taxpayers’ dollars?”

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