- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 18, 2003

The House Ways and Means Committee late last night approved creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens after Republicans turned back Democratic attempts to change the bill to ensure more government control of the new benefit.

Rep. Bill Thomas, California Republican and chairman of the committee, said the bill he crafted would modernize Medicare and “provide all seniors who so choose, a prescription drug benefit.”

“This is going to serve our seniors well,” said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson, Connecticut Republican. The measure passed 25-15 on a mostly party-line vote, with one Democrat, Rep. Earl Pomeroy of North Dakota, joining Republicans in voting “yes.”

But committee progress was slow and Democrats complained about the bill.

“What we have before us is a rotten deal for seniors,” said Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat. “It privatizes Medicare.”

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also began its debate on the bill yesterday but is expected to take three days to approve it. The Senate continued debating its bill yesterday and is likely to begin amendments today.

The House and the Senate bills — each with projected costs of roughly $400 billion over 10 years — would offer similar prescription-drug benefits starting in 2006, either through private, drug-only plans for those who choose to stay in traditional Medicare or through a new Medicare option.

The new option would use private health groups, such as preferred-provider organizations, to deliver comprehensive health coverage, including drug coverage and such extras as catastrophic coverage and preventive care. Both bills also would give low-income seniors a good deal of extra help with drug costs.

The House bill, however, would go further — requiring traditional Medicare to compete against the private plans starting in 2010. Mr. Thomas modified it slightly, phasing it in over five years and establishing some controls so that Medicare premiums would not jump precipitously.

But House Democrats criticized the proposal. The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York, said it will be the “end of Medicare as we know it.”

He said private plans will market themselves to healthier seniors, leaving the sickest in traditional Medicare, which will drive up the cost of the program and make it a less-viable option.

Democrats tried to get rid of this provision, saying it was controversial and not part of President Bush’s proposed framework. Their amendment was defeated on a party-line vote of 23-14.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, said yesterday that competition will drive down the cost of seniors’ health care and that Democrats are trying to scare seniors, which “isn’t going to work.”

Under the bill, seniors would pay $250 annually and then 20 percent of their drug costs up to $2,000. Seniors would then be on their own with drug bills until their total out-of-pocket spending reached $3,500, at which point the government would pick up the full tab, except for those with incomes of $60,000 or greater, who would have to pay some costs. The average monthly premium is estimated to be about $35.

Democrats noted, however, that private plans would be allowed to alter these numbers.

They argued seniors need a Medicare-run drug plan with fixed benefits and premiums as one of their options. They offered an amendment that would have provided such an option, but it was defeated on a party-line vote of 23-15.

Mr. Thomas said the amendment would create “a government-dictated program,” which he said is the reason that Medicare has had problems changing with the times.

The panel was able to come together to increase help to Medicare’s often-struggling rural doctors and hospitals. A bipartisan amendment, which passed 39-0 and was co-sponsored by Mr. Pomeroy, would increase rural assistance from about $16 billion in the bill to about $27 billion, amendment sponsors said. The Senate bill would provide about $25 billion in help to rural providers.

Mr. Stark offered a Democratic alternative in place of the bill, that would have instituted a Medicare-run prescription-drug plan. Seniors would have had to pay $25 per month and 20 percent of drug costs up to $2,000, at which point the government would pick up the rest.

He admitted this would cost about $900 billion but said, “It provides an adequate prescription-drug benefit to seniors, and that costs money.”

The proposal was defeated 26-14, with Republicans arguing it was too costly and makes none of the much-needed Medicare reforms.

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