- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

The new Congress is setting its sights on reopening debate on the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The Senate Finance Committee could convene hearings on the drug program as early as next week. Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and the committee’s chairman, is unhappy with the Bush administration’s implementation of the new drug benefit.

“Senator Baucus wants to make the Medicare drug benefit work as well as possible for American seniors, so oversight will be a priority for the Finance Committee this year,” said Carol Guthrie, Mr. Baucus’ spokeswoman. “He has repeatedly expressed concern that the program has been implemented in a way that’s too complicated for many seniors to navigate, and so in particular he will continue his efforts to reduce confusion and improve information for seniors looking to get the medicines they need.”

While Mr. Baucus is eager to make the drug benefit less confusing, he is not eager to implement price negotiations. Mr. Baucus is satisfied that drug prices have been cut as a result of competition among prescription drug plans participating in the benefit.

But House Democrats are set to introduce legislation requiring the administration to negotiate for lower drug prices.

“I think the bottom line is that there is no reason the government shouldn’t get the best possible deal on behalf of beneficiaries and taxpayers, and that’s clearly not happening right now,” said a Democratic aide on the Ways and Means Committee.

“Plus, independent surveys — and frankly even some of the government work — show that the discounts under the plans are not that great, in some cases not even as good as an uninsured person gets off the street at Costco or the prices available under the preceding drug discount card, which didn’t have an insured benefit,” the aide said.

Under a three-page draft bill, the Health and Human Services secretary is required to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers. The draft legislation, authored by Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, also prohibits the administration from establishing mandatory drug lists, which drug companies argued would restrict people’s access to drugs.

By including the prohibition on government-run drug lists, Mr. Dingell is attempting to attract needed Republican support for the bill.

“They want this to pass,” said a beneficiary advocate. “So they need swing Republicans to get on board.”

The House likely will pass the bill soon, but the Senate is a much trickier gambit, and the likelihood of a presidential veto is high.

“It’s 100 hours in the House, eight months in the Senate and then the president’s veto,” said Alexander Vachon, a health care policy consultant for Wall Street. “That is the best outcome for Democrats because they will then be able to use the issue in the 2008 election.”

But to get to a veto, the bill must get 60 votes to bypass a Republican filibuster in the Senate. To do that, the bill needs the support of Mr. Baucus.

“I know that a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the issue of drug-price negotiation could happen as early as next week,” said a Finance Committee aide.

If Mr. Baucus is swayed during those hearings, the Democrats could force the president’s veto for only the second time.

Health care runs Fridays. Contact Gregory Lopes at 202/636-4892 or [email protected]washingtontimes.com.

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