- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2003

A major player in the Senate’s prescription-drug debate said yesterday that the final Senate bill will provide the same prescription-drug coverage for seniors who stay in traditional Medicare as for those who choose a new, private option.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said that while he does not yet know what the initial Senate prescription-drug bill will look like, “by the time it gets through the Senate, it will have equal benefits.”

He is negotiating with members of his Finance Committee over the bill’s details and hopes to hold a committee vote on the measure sometime next week.

President Bush and Congress have set aside $400 billion over 10 years to revamp Medicare and create a prescription-drug benefit. But he and some conservatives had wanted to provide some help with drug costs under the traditional Medicare program, and a more robust prescription-drug benefit for seniors who choose a new, enhanced Medicare option. The new option would be private health plans administered by preferred provider options (PPOs), which would offer prescription-drug coverage as well as benefits Medicare does not provide, such as preventative care and catastrophic coverage.

Finance Committee members Sens. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, and Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said the committee bill will indeed create the new enhanced Medicare option. But they said it also will provide the exact same prescription-drug coverage under both traditional Medicare and the new private option.

Mr. Grassley would not discuss the details of the bill, and said it was still being crafted.

But Mr. Breaux laid out the details of what he said is one idea being floated. He said the prescription-drug benefit under both traditional Medicare and the new private option would have a $275 deductible. Seniors would then have to pay 50 percent of their drug costs up to $3,450. They would then be responsible for all drug costs up to $5,300, at which point they would only have to pay 10 percent of the costs.

For general health care coverage, if a senior stays in traditional Medicare, he would have to pay the current Medicare deductibles of $840 for hospital stays and $100 for doctor visits. But if a senior chose the new, private option — Medicare Advantage — he would only have to pay one annual deductible of $400 for hospital and doctor services, Mr. Breaux said. The new option also would include extra benefits that traditional Medicare does not offer, such as more preventative care and catastrophic coverage, he said.

Mr. Breaux said the White House would still probably prefer a more robust prescription-drug plan under the new private option, as an incentive for seniors to embrace it. But he said if a compromise bill passes the Senate, “I think they’ll be happy.”

The Louisiana Democrat also noted that the draft bill would still provide incentives for seniors to move to the private plans, because those plans would offer attractive benefits like catastrophic coverage and preventative care.

“There’ll be reasons to move to the other system, other incentives,” he said.

Mr. Breaux said that the committee plans to hold hearings on the bill as early as Friday.

Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders laid out their principles for a Medicare prescription-drug plan, complaining loudly that the president and Republicans want seniors to move out of Medicare and into private health plans.

They said any new drug plan should be created through existing Medicare. “Our plan is based on the Medicare system as we know it today,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat. He also criticized the use of PPOs, saying some rural areas of the country do not have them available.

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