- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 24, 2009

Democrats knocked down Republicans’ attempts to restore proposed cuts to Medicare providers in the Senate Finance Committee’s health care reform bill as lawmakers repeatedly clashed on issues important to seniors.

The skirmishes come as the panel prepares to cast a crucial vote on a Democrat-proposed amendment that would gut a highly touted deal between President Obama and drug and health care companies to control long-term costs.

Democrats have proposed $500 billion in cuts to Medicare providers over 10 years to help pay for the reform bill, arguing they would come from waste and abuse. They accused Medicare Advantage, a premium Medicare program administered by insurance companies as government contractors, of being too generous to insurance companies.

“This is just stuffing money into the pockets of private insurers,” said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat.

Republicans proposed amendments to restore $113 billion in cuts to the Medicare Advantage program, arguing that Mr. Obama’s pledge that consumers could keep their current coverage wouldn’t apply otherwise.

“They’re not going to keep what they have if my amendment isn’t passed,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

The amendment failed on a near party-line vote as the panel began its slog through more than 500 amendments to Chairman Max Baucus’ health care reform plan. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, considered key to Democratic efforts to get a bill passed, voted with the panel’s Democrats.

Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf said the cuts could, in fact, end up reducing benefits to patients.

Seniors, a pivotal voting bloc, have been some of the most vocal opponents to health care reform, spurred by Republicans who argue that many of the proposals would hurt Medicare coverage.

In an effort to shore up seniors’ support, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told a Maryland retirement community Wednesday that “nobody is going to mess with your benefits.”

A vote was planned for late Wednesday or early Thursday on the amendment from Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat.

The amendment would require drug companies to provide government rebates on the drugs they supply to patients who are in Medicare and Medicaid, people called “dual-eligibles,” basically reversing a 2003 law that set up the structure. Mr. Nelson said the amendment would fill the Medicare “doughnut hole” and add $50 billion in savings.

It was supported by many, but not all fellow Democrats on the panel during discussion late Tuesday. A vote on the amendment was postponed by the chairman, who praised the prescription drug deal when it was first announced in June.

Three Democrats have already told Mr. Nelson they plan to vote it down. It’s unclear how Republicans, including crucial swing vote Ms. Snowe, plan to vote.

“It’s going to be close,” Mr. Nelson said.

The amendment from Mr. Nelson would effectively invalidate the highly touted deal between the White House and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, in which the group pledged $80 billion over 10 years to help cover seniors’ drug costs. It was later revealed that, in exchange, the White House would not support anything that required any additional costs from the drugmakers, including provisions empowering the states to negotiate prices.

Many lawmakers in the House and Senate have scoffed at the deal, arguing they don’t have to live up to a White House handshake with a major industry group. The deal exposed the White House to accusations that it was participating in closed-door negotiating sessions with industry groups that have a lot to lose or gain in health care reform.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper of Delaware was the sole Democrat to voice opposition to overturning the deal Tuesday, arguing that regardless of the content of the deal, they couldn’t undo it. Other Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said it wasn’t Congress’ agreement to uphold.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the panel, said the amendment would drive up costs for individuals with private insurance coverage.

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