- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

The battle lines in Congress have been drawn on the key election-year issue of providing seniors with a prescription drug benefit.
House Republicans are preparing for a floor debate this week on their $350 billion bill that would provide a Medicare prescription drug benefit. Democrats, however, have criticized it as insufficient, promoting instead their $800 billion alternative.
After much internal negotiation, House Republicans introduced a proposal last week and quickly sent it through two committees, with the Energy and Commerce panel completing work on the bill on Friday.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, and other Republican leaders say the plan is to bring it to the floor this week.
They are currently educating conference members about the bill and trying to determine what the final vote will look like. "It's still a developing situation," said a House Republican leadership aide. "It's going to be close and contentious."
Republicans have faced strong criticism that their plan is inadequate and relies too much on the private sector. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, called it a "sham" and said Republicans were providing "a meaningless benefit that protects the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately leads to the privatization of Medicare."
Republicans say their bill will allow for competition, which will keep drug costs down. They say the drug benefit will be part of Medicare, and although private insurers will craft the prescription drug plans, all plans must be approved by the secretary of Health and Human Services.
"Medicare beneficiaries are paying more for their drugs because they lack access to the market, leverage and negotiating power that private health plans typically provide," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican. "Our bill seeks to provide [them] with the same type of negotiating power, so that they can harness the same competitive, free-market forces that allow most of us to obtain significantly discounted drug prices."
The Health and Human Services department released an analysis last week agreeing with that assessment and saying that the Republican bill would cut seniors' drug costs by as much as 70 percent.
But Rep. Jim McDermott, Washington Democrat, took to the floor on Friday to tell Republicans that their plan was "absolutely inadequate." He added that "it's a real shame that you'd rather cut taxes" than provide more money to help the elderly.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, said it comes down to a choice between "a reasonable program that has a chance at becoming law" and House Democrats' "$800 billion pie-in-the-sky proposal" that he said was put forward simply for political reasons.
Under the Republican plan as approved by the Ways and Means committee, all but low-income seniors would have to meet a $250 annual deductible. The government would pay 80 percent of the first $1,000 of drug costs and 50 percent of the next $1,000. After $2,000, patients would have to pay all of their drug costs until they reach $3,800, at which point catastrophic coverage would kick in, and the government would cover all drug costs.


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