CONGRESS: Vacation Over, Health Care Issues Heat Up
Congress returned from its summer recess yesterday and as both parties are looking to score points with voters before the fall elections, Democrats vowed to continue their fight for patients' rights, while Senate Republican leaders offered a revised bill on prescription drug benefits for seniors, the New York Times reports. The GOP plan, written by Sen. William Roth (R-Del.), "would immediately make affordable drugs more affordable for the low-income elderly, independent of Medicare." Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, "We want to do it in such a way that doesn't cause major problems for Medicare. The president wants to subsidize it for everybody. And he ... and Al Gore [want] to do it without any Medicare changes. That is a major problem." Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) indicated that Democrats were unlikely to support the plan, saying, "We are unwilling to accept a bill that does not meet at least the minimum criteria. We've said it had to be universal."
HMO Reform Efforts
On the managed care front, Republican leaders said a "Democratic bill to overhaul managed care would go nowhere," while Democrats were hopeful that the addition of Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) to their ranks would allow them to pass the Norwood-Dingell managed care bill already approved in the House (Alvarez, 9/6). Reps. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) have modified the original version of their plan in the hopes of appeasing Senate Republicans. The new proposal calls for an expansion of the medical savings account program, places a $5 million limit on the amount a patient can recover for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering, and makes clear "that employers cannot be sued just for offering a health plan." Some Republicans currently involved in a conference committee discussing the bill believe the proposal mirrors the original draft too closely. Insurers, like the Blue Cross Blue Shield, also disapprove, saying the bill "raises more questions than answers," particularly regarding the level of government regulation on administrative and medical decisions. Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-Okla.), who offered the revised version to the conference committee, said he believed the original bill would not pass the Senate, "despite Democrats' claims to the contrary." Nickles is set to meet with House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) today to discuss the plan. The speaker is "cautiously optimistic" about getting something accomplished this year, according to his spokesperson (Fulton, CongressDaily/A.M., 9/6).