Democrats Assume Control of Senate, Set New Agenda
In an "unprecedented midyear transfer of power," Democrats last night assumed control of the Senate for the first time in six years, prompting both political parties and President Bush to "issue summonses to bipartisanship as the only way to get things done," the Washington Post reports. However, the Democrats' agenda "presented a stark contrast" to Republicans' plans, and "major fights appear to lie ahead" over some bills, including patients' rights legislation and a prescription drug benefit under Medicare (Dewar, Washington Post, 6/6). The Los Angeles Times reports that the shift in the Senate after Sen. James Jeffords' (I-Vt.) party switch "cleared the way" for "newly empowered" Democrats to tackle their "favored" issues (Hook/Miller, Los Angeles Times, 6/6). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the new Senate has "given Democrats the upper hand" on a patients' rights bill (Hutcheson, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/6).
After finishing work on the education bill, probably next week, Democrats plan to address patients' rights legislation -- likely a bill (S 283) sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Edwards (D-N.C.) -- and expect "prompt action" on a Medicare prescription drug benefit, expected incoming Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said (Washington Post, 6/6). That bill would allow patients to sue HMOs in state court for denial of benefits or quality of care issues and in federal court for non-quality of care issues, such as those involving violations of their health plan's contract. At the White House yesterday, Bush hosted lawmakers expected to "play a key role in shaping" patients' rights legislation (Hosler, Baltimore Sun, 6/6). Bush "signaled a willingness to compromise" on the issue, although he "steadfastly avoided any specifics" (Bruni, New York Times, 6/6). According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the president had hoped to "put off action" on the issue and build support for a bill (S 889) sponsored by Sens. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), John Breaux (D-La.) and Jeffords (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/6). The Frist-Breaux-Jeffords bill would give all patients with private health insurance a "slender" right to sue their health plans in federal court after exhausting an appeals process by an outside review panel. Bush opposes the McCain-Kennedy-Edwards bill, saying that the legislation would "give patients a wide latitude" to sue insurers. He has threatened to veto the bill, but "no one at the White House seems to relish the idea." One White House official asked, "How are you going to veto a patients' bill of rights? They'd burn him in the streets in effigy" (Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/6). However, in the House, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said that a "litigation-focused" patients' rights bill "would be dead on arrival." He added, "The House of Representatives is not interested in passing HMO legislation that forsakes the patient ... in the interests of promoting lawsuit opportunities." House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) met with Daschle yesterday to discuss the issue of patients' rights "in general terms" (Boyer/Hudson, Washington Times, 6/6).
Meanwhile, CongressDaily reports that efforts to move a prescription drug benefit "remain slow and steady," with prospects for final passage "uncertain." A prescription drug benefit bill "remains a ... complicated puzzle," observers said. Sally Canfield, counsel to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, said that the White House remains "absolutely committed to [Medicare] reform, not just getting prescription drugs added," but could not predict "how much reform Senate Democrats will agree to and how much money will be devoted to the effort." The Congressional Budget Office Friday will likely send the Senate Finance Committee an estimate on "what kind of drug benefit can be bought" with the $300 billion that Congress allocated for that purpose in the FY 2002 budget resolution. Earlier this year, the CBO estimated that the cost of prescription drugs has increased by 30% in the last year and a half, leaving Democrats "doubtful" that the funding "will be adequate." Incoming Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) met yesterday with former chair and now ranking member Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) to discuss a drug benefit bill. Grassley said that, as committee chair, he had planned to "get a drug bill out" during the last week of July, and aides said that the plan remains "on track." In the House, the committees with jurisdiction over Medicare have moved "on separate tracks" and plan to introduce bills this summer. However, one health lobbyist said that "without the cash and without agreement among the committees, which they don't have, it's doubtful (that a [Medicare prescription drug] bill will pass Congress)." In addition, CongressDaily reports that Senate Democrats "may not want to hand President Bush a victory" on the issue (Rovner, CongressDaily, 6/5).