- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2003

The Senate yesterday defeated the first attempt by Democrats to alter the bipartisan Medicare prescription-drug bill, turning back an amendment that would have offered seniors the option of a drug plan run directly by the government.

“Eighty-nine percent of the seniors of the country have already chosen Medicare, and yet that option is not available to them in this bill without going through a convoluted process of private-insurance options,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Michigan Democrat who offered the amendment. “My amendment … would allow seniors to get their prescription drugs through the Medicare program.”

The Senate bill would allow seniors who stay in traditional Medicare to get drug coverage through private, drug-only insurance plans. If these plans do not enter an area of the country, the government would step in and provide a fallback plan.

Mrs. Stabenow’s amendment to give all Medicare seniors the option of a government-run plan was defeated 58-37, with six Democrats and one independent joining 51 Republicans in voting “no.”

Opponents of the Stabenow plan said a government-run drug program is just what they are trying to avoid.

“If you love the federal government and the federal government’s control over all of our lives, boy, this is the program for you,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, said of Mrs. Stabenow’s proposal. “Because it certainly would fly in the face of everything we’ve been trying to do.”

The House and Senate drug bills 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 (PPOs), to deliver comprehensive health coverage, including drug coverage and extras such as preventive care. Both bills also would give low-income seniors a good deal of extra help with drug costs.

Supporters say private-sector competition will give seniors more choices and lower costs, while many Democrats say Republicans are trying to dismantle Medicare.

Meanwhile, the House Medicare prescription-drug bill was inching towards approval in the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday.

Democrats complained bitterly that the $400 billion measure does not go far enough to help seniors with their drug costs, and has a “doughnut hole” — a gap in coverage in which seniors would have to pick up full drug costs.

Democrats handed out doughnuts to committee members to make their point. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., New Jersey Democrat, held up a huge cardboard doughnut. “It’s time to fill it,” he said.

Rep. Lee Terry, Nebraska Republican, responded to the doughnuts by having his staff pass out cups of coffee to committee Democrats. “Wake up and smell the coffee,” he said.

Committee Republicans defeated Democratic efforts to expand the drug benefit. Among other amendments, a Democratic alternative drug plan estimated to cost $900 billion was defeated, 27-25.

Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican, said Democrats want to “bust the budget” with their $900 billion proposal, which doesn’t have any of the much-needed reforms to Medicare.

The House bill would require traditional Medicare to compete against the private plans starting in 2010 — a move Rep. Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, said would be the “death knell of Medicare.”

A group of Republicans in the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been pushing their own drug plan and a deal was struck allowing part of their plan to be incorporated into the bill.

The committee yesterday approved a temporary “drug value card” for seniors through 2006. The government would contribute a set amount to the card depending on a senior’s income, and family members, employers or the state could also contribute.

Committee Democrats yesterday complained that Congress would have much more than $400 billion for the drug benefit if Republicans would stop passing tax cuts.

“It makes me sick to my stomach,” said Rep. Ted Strickland, Ohio Democrat.

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