- The Washington Times - Friday, June 13, 2003

Legislation to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit was approved by the Senate Finance Committee last night with overwhelming bipartisan support and will head to the Senate floor on Monday.

Committee Chairman and bill crafter Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, called it, “the biggest improvement to Medicare in the program’s history.”

And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist — who pledged that the Senate would pass the bill in the next few weeks — thanked President Bush for being the “catalyst” for the legislative effort.

The president again yesterday urged Congress to act on the issue.

The Senate bill passed late yesterday by a bipartisan vote of 16-5, including the support of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle.

Under the Senate bill, a senior would pay $275 annually and then would have to pay only 50 percent of drug costs up to $4,500. Seniors then would have to cover their full costs until about $5,800, when Medicare would cover 90 percent of costs.

Republican Sens. Don Nickles of Oklahoma and Trent Lott of Mississippi voted against it, mainly because they are concerned that the new benefit will be too costly in the future. And Democratic Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Bob Graham of Florida and John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, also voted no.

Mr. Graham said the bill is, “a major step to what we said we would not do, which is privatization of Medicare.”

Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said that although he remains “very concerned about many of the aspects” of the bill, “it’s a start, however shaky we may view that start to be,” and he wants to bring it to the floor for further improvements. He praised Mr. Grassley for beefing up the drug benefit beyond what was originally proposed.

Meanwhile, House Republican leaders introduced their bill, which is similar but has more reforms to Medicare and would eventually require traditional Medicare to compete against the private plans.

Both bills would offer Medicare beneficiaries a stand-alone prescription drug benefit delivered through private insurance companies. And they also would offer a new Medicare option that would use preferred provider organizations (PPOs) to deliver comprehensive health coverage, including drug benefits and extras such as catastrophic coverage and disease management.

The Bush administration and allies in Congress say the PPO model will modernize Medicare.

Both bills would cost about $400 billion over 10 years. Although the drug plans would be equivalent under traditional Medicare or the new PPO setup, both bills would require seniors in traditional Medicare to pay higher deductibles for doctor care than they currently do.

Mr. Grassley and ranking panel Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, managed to stave off major changes, pledging to work with several members on their concerns before floor action next week.

Democrats complained that more money should be spent on the drug benefit, and about what they said is the potential instability of the new system being created, while such Republicans as Mr. Nickles said they worried that the new setup may be too costly down the line.

Under the House measure, seniors would pay a $250 annual deductible and 20 percent of drug costs up to $2,000, at which point they’d be on their own until their total out-of-pocket costs reach $3,700. Medicare then would pay all drug bills.

However, the House bill institutes a “means test” under which seniors with incomes above $60,000 would have to pick up some of their drug bills beyond the catastrophic level.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee complained that private plans would be given some flexibility to stray from this standard plan and that monthly premiums seniors pay could vary in different areas of the country. Panel aides said the average premium would be $35 monthly, but could vary.

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