- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 30, 2002

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer visited a senior center in Maryland to hear stories from the elderly about the cost of prescription drugs, as both political parties firm up competing proposals for a Medicare prescription-drug benefit and prepare for House action in June.

"At the end of the month, between the both of us, we don't have a dime left in the bank," said Edgar Thomas, who is in his early 60s and burdened by overwhelming drug costs. Mr. Thomas and his wife, Emily, from Dunkirk, Md., have a monthly income of $1,797 from Social Security and disability payments. They pay an estimated $900 each month for their prescription drugs.

"In Washington there is a consensus that we need to do something on prescription drugs," Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told a group of about 20 senior citizens Tuesday at the South County Senior Center in Edgewater, Md. But, he said, "there was and is a substantial difference" among lawmakers over how robust prescription-drug coverage should be and how much money the government should invest.

The issue is one of the top ones this election year and action is expected soon after Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess next week. House Republicans had pledged action by Memorial Day on their plan for a prescription-drug benefit under Medicare, but it was delayed as they altered their bill and waited for final cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. One Republican aide said the thinking was that if the CBO estimates showed greater cost savings than Republicans had anticipated, they could use the extra money to beef up their plan even more.

Mr. Hoyer said the delay is because Republicans simply disagree among themselves over how broad their bill is going to be and how much it will cost.

Republicans say the legislation is moving forward, however. Christin Tinsworth, spokeswoman for the Ways and Means Committee, said the final Republican bill could be introduced next week. House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, said the measure probably would be on the House floor by the third week of June.

A House Democratic aide said there are rumors the Energy and Commerce Committee could mark up the bill as early as next Wednesday, but Miss Tinsworth said that scenario is unlikely.

Seniors pressed Mr. Hoyer Tuesday about how long it would take for Congress to actually pass a plan into law.

"Could it take two years? Absolutely it could take two years," Mr. Hoyer said. "Would I like to see it pass this year? I would. Do I think its going to? I don't. But I think if we don't talk about it and lobby for it, it's not going to get done."

The House Republican plan will fall within the $350 billion over 10 years set aside for general Medicare reform in the House-passed budget plan. The bulk of that will go to a prescription-drug benefit, but some will go toward other reforms of the Medicare system.

In contrast, the House Democrats' plan is strictly a prescription-drug benefit and does not contain reforms to Medicare or other provisions. It is also the most expensive plan estimated to cost somewhere between $700 billion and $800 billion over 10 years, which Republicans criticize as totally unrealistic.

But Mr. Hoyer touted it at the senior center on Tuesday as the most complete prescription-drug coverage of the plans floating around. Though the proposal is still being drafted, the House Democrats' general idea is to have Medicare seniors pay about $25 to $30 each month and in return the government would pick up 80 percent of their prescription-drug costs.

The House Republican plan has not been introduced, but under a draft measure, the Medicare beneficiary would pay the first $250 of his or her annual prescription-drug costs. After that, the government would pay 80 percent and the beneficiary would pay 20 percent, until $1000. From $1,001 to $2,000, it would be a 50-50 split, after which the beneficiary would have to pay 100 percent. Once costs reached $5,000, the government would pick up the full cost. Every month, participants would have to pay $35 to $40.

Democrats criticize the plan for requiring beneficiaries to pick up the full cost after $2,000.

The Republicans' and Democrats' prescription-drug plans are both more expensive than the president's plan, which would cost $190 billion over 10 years and apply only to low-income seniors.

Meanwhile, in the Senate, Democrats Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia introduced a plan that would cost an estimated $425 billion over eight years at which point the program would have to be reauthorized. Under that plan, the government would pay for half a beneficiary's prescription-drug costs up to $4,000, after which the government would pay 100 percent.

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