- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

Republican leaders, already facing heat from party members over the estimated $534 billion cost of their new Medicare prescription-drug law, now are getting pressure from a key ally in passing the bill last year — AARP, which says it will work to enlarge the program.

The Medicare prescription-drug benefit doesn’t kick in until 2006, but Bill Novelli, chief executive officer of seniors-advocate AARP, said earlier this week that his group will work to beef up and expand the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit.

AARP is “pursuing opportunities to build on the new Medicare law” in the next several years, Mr. Novelli said at his group’s headquarters Wednesday.

He also said his group will try allow more seniors to qualify for substantial government help with their drug costs by loosening the definition of “low income.”

And he said that if U.S. drug prices are not lowered by other efforts, AARP will work to allow the federal government to negotiate with drug companies for lower drug prices for Medicare seniors — a change many Democrats have fought for and Republican leaders and the White House have resisted.

Republican leaders have long expected pressure from AARP and others to pour more money into the new drug benefit, which many in their party think is already too expensive.

“I think the pressure constantly will be to expand the [drug] benefit,” said Stuart Butler, vice president for domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation.

He said one of the reasons his group was so critical of the legislation was that, “once you start down that road … it would be those constantly wanting to expand the program having the initiative, and the Republicans always having to dig in and say ‘no.’”

AARP took flak from Democrats and some seniors last year when it teamed up with Republican congressional leaders and the Bush administration to help push the Medicare drug bill through Congress.

The influential seniors group says its more immediate goals for this year include helping the government educate and sign seniors up for the discount-drug-card program, which is part of the new law and takes effect June 1.

Last week, the Health and Human Services Department doubled its efforts to sign people up for the cards, targeting low-income beneficiaries who qualify for a $600 bonus credit on their cards. As of Tuesday, AARP officials said 400 seniors had signed up for the AARP-sponsored discount-drug card, and the group had sent out more than 20,000 application kits to interested seniors.

AARP also has been contacting the heads of drug companies trying to convince them to keep their drug prices down, and last week AARP launched a quarterly newsletter publicly listing drug prices as a way of keeping the pressure on the companies.

Mr. Novelli also said another immediate goal for AARP is to persuade Congress to allow prescription drugs to be imported from Canada, where prices are controlled by law. Some states already are encouraging citizens to buy cheaper drugs from north of the border.

“We hope to see a bill passed by Congress this year,” Mr. Novelli said.

Stuart Roy, spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom Delay, Texas Republican, said it’s no surprise that AARP wants to make changes to the new Medicare law down the line, since all along the group said they viewed last year’s bill as a starting point. He said Republican leaders will resist efforts to expand the law anytime soon.

“Our plan is to allow the current law to fully take effect … and to make sure that the maximum number of seniors can take advantage of the prescription-drug card and the drug benefit … before we allow anyone to start tinkering with a law that hasn’t even taken effect,” Mr. Roy said.

He added that even some Democrats acknowledge the new law is costly and Congress shouldn’t spend even more money on it.

But AARP’s future plans did not go over well with some Republicans, who said they worried all along that Republicans made the new drug program too costly to begin with, in order to get AARP to support it.

“I think Republicans grossly underestimated the cost of buying off the AARP,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted against the Medicare drug-benefit bill.

Mr. Butler said Republicans haven’t really changed the politics of Medicare at all by creating the large new drug benefit. He said Democrats will still be fighting to expand Medicare and accusing Republicans of not doing enough.

“There’s been no political benefit that I can see,” the Heritage scholar said.

Mr. Butler said it was never a secret that AARP wanted to expand the drug benefit later and that the alliance between Republicans and the group was just a “tryst” as opposed to a marriage.

House Republicans saw the bill as a first step to reforming Medicare and making it more market-based, while AARP saw it as a first step to having a government program that covers drug costs, he said.

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