- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 2, 2002

House Republicans and Senate Democrats yesterday offered competing plans that would lower prescription drug costs and enact a Medicare prescription drug benefit for America's seniors this election year.
Standing on the Capitol steps flanked by a group of senior citizens, House Republicans revealed their principles for creating a prescription drug benefit under Medicare. They plan to formally introduce a bill in the next few weeks, pledged floor action by the end of this month and challenged the Senate to do the same.
"We're determined to get it done," said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican. "We will honor America's seniors this month by passing legislation to lower the cost of prescription drugs and provide senior citizens a guaranteed prescription drug benefit under Medicare."
"We've talked too long," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican. "This plan is affordable, it's realistic."
Republicans also announced the Speaker's Prescription Drug Action Team charged with getting a bill passed. The 43-member group will be co-chaired by Mr. Thomas and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican.
Republicans said their plan would make a prescription drug benefit part of Medicare and available to all seniors, not just some as Democrats have charged. Their plan will also lower the cost of prescription drugs for all seniors and help them pay for the drugs, Republicans said.
It will provide additional help to the very poor and very sick and will reform other parts of Medicare, such as improving preventive care benefits, strengthening the Medicare+Choice program and lowering overall health care costs.
The Republican plan will fall within the $350 billion over 10 years set aside for general Medicare reform in the House-passed budget plan. They are still determining how much of that will go specifically to prescription drugs and what the final numbers will look like, Mr. Tauzin said.
The House Republican plan is more expensive than what the president called for, but less than what many Democrats say is needed House Democrats are currently crafting a plan that is estimated to cost $700 billion to $800 billion over 10 years. Mr. Tauzin said the Republican plan is "somewhere in the middle and my guess is that it's close to where we'll end up."
In the Senate, Democratic Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia introduced their plan, which would cost an estimated $425 billion over eight years at which point the program would have to be reauthorized. Mr. Graham said it is only wise to pause and determine whether the changes are working after the new program has been up and running for several years.
But Mr. Thomas criticized the Graham bill for not being permanent, like the House Republican plan.
Mr. Graham, however, charged that the Republican plan has a "gap" in the prescription drug coverage it would provide.
Although the bill is still being developed, Republicans are discussing a plan under which the government would cover 70 percent to 80 percent of the cost of a senior's annual prescription drugs for the first $1,000. After that, the government would pay 50 percent until the cost reaches $2,250, at which point the senior would have to pay 100 percent of the cost of the drugs until it reaches $5,000. Then the government would pick up 100 percent of the cost.
The average annual cost of prescription drugs for seniors is $2,450. Hence, Republicans say, their plan would provide solid coverage.
But Mr. Graham criticized this and pointed out that under his plan, the government would pay for half of their prescription drug costs up to $4,000, after which the government would pay 100 percent.

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