- The Washington Times - Monday, July 15, 2002

Senate Democrats, with no consensus on Medicare coverage of prescription drugs, instead will call up a bill aimed at promoting cheaper, generic drugs.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has been waiting for the Senate Finance Committee to produce a compromise that would provide a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, but the panel has been unable to meld two competing bills.
To get movement on the issue, Mr. Daschle said, he will bring the generics bill to the Senate floor with debate beginning tonight.
Members will be able to offer their larger Medicare prescription drug proposals as amendments to the generic drug bill, Mr. Daschle said.
"I'm hoping that we can achieve our work over the course of the next two weeks, that we can achieve a product that we can send to conference with the House," Mr. Daschle said Friday.
The House on June 28 passed a Medicare prescription drug bill estimated to cost $350 billion over 10 years. But most Democrats say that proposal would rely too heavily on private companies to design the prescription drug plans.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican, was skeptical of the way Senate Democrats would handle the floor debate this week.
"For us to set up a process that guarantees mutually assured destruction is wrong. It's time for us to act, get a bill through," he said.
The two main Senate proposals differ in terms of price and the structure and delivery of the drug benefit.
A bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Mr. Daschle would cost about $500 billion over six years and would require reauthorization in 2010, which Republicans reject.
The competing, so-called "tripartisan" bill is being crafted by Sens. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican; John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat; Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican; Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican; and James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent. It would cost no more than $370 billion over 10 years and, like the House bill, would give private companies flexibility in designing the prescription drug plans and choosing which medications would be covered. Under the Graham bill, the government through Medicare would decide these issues.
In a conference meeting Friday morning, Senate Republicans discussed the Grassley bill as well as two other proposals.
One proposal introduced by Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Ensign of Nevada is estimated to cost about $150 billion over 10 years and includes a discount drug card program and coverage for poor seniors. Republican Sen. Wayne Allard of Colorado and others have offered a plan under which Medicare's deductibles would be simplified into one combined deductible of $675 to cover hospital, medical and drug expenses.
Mr. Lott said he would not use delay tactics during the debate, "as long as they are going to be fair with us and give us a chance to debate their proposal and have a chance to offer our proposal or proposals."
Mr. Lott said the Grassley-Breaux-Jeffords bill especially should be given a chance and that debate should be about trying to get legislation through the Senate, not about trying to "make a political statement."
Both Mr. Daschle and Mr. Lott said a bill likely would need 60 votes in order to pass, which would be difficult. Mr. Lott pointed out that under the current budget agreement, any bill costing more than $300 billion that skips the Finance Committee and comes straight to the floor must receive 60 votes to pass the Senate.
Mr. Breaux says he does not think the Graham bill will garner the 60 votes, and he hopes its supporters would vote for the Grassley-Breaux-Jeffords bill to get some prescription drug proposal through the Senate.
The generics bill approved by Mr. Kennedy's Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee on a bipartisan 16-5 vote last week aims to increase competition by preventing pharmaceutical companies from blocking generic drugs from entering the market.


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