House Republicans Still Working on Medicare Reform Package
House Republicans, who had hoped to pass their $350 billion Medicare reform package by Memorial Day, are still struggling to craft a plan acceptable to the party's rank and file members, the Hartford Courant reports. Most observers believe that the GOP will "overcome their problems" and approve the package -- the centerpiece of which is a prescription drug benefit -- next month. But the challenges House Republican leaders have encountered this month are reminders that "changing Medicare is always difficult," the Courant reports (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 5/24). The latest internal dissent came from two dozen conservatives, who wrote a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) Wednesday urging that the package include greater structural reforms to Medicare. "Like the president, we believe a Medicare prescription drug bill must include modernizations to move Medicare from an administered pricing program to a market-based program similar to the Federal Employee Health Benefit Program," the letter said, adding, "If we cannot modernize Medicare in meaningful ways when we are adding a $350 billion new entitlement, when will we have the courage to do the right thing?" In addition, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who is helping to craft the package, continues to face competing pressures from providers over Medicare payment issues. Hospitals are opposed to a proposal to reduce their reimbursement increases in order to provide more funding for doctors, home health agencies and nursing homes and have "launched an all-out offensive" against the cuts (Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/23). The GOP's drug benefit proposal would cost no more than $350 billion over 10 years; the leading Democratic proposal, which calls for spending $425 million between 2004 and 2010 (California Healthline, 5/2).
As GOP members head home for the Memorial Day recess, the issue of a prescription drug benefit will travel with them, CongressDaily/AM reports. House Republican leaders, "[g]earing up" for a possible June vote on the Medicare package, have given each member a "recess kit" that contains talking points and a four-minute video message from President Bush
promoting the drug plan. According to Republican Conference Chair J.C. Watts (Okla.), lawmakers can use the video in conjunction with a radio talk show, town hall meeting, or college forum on prescription drugs. A recess kit excerpt states, "After a lifetime of hard work, seniors deserve peace of mind and retirement security, including ... a guaranteed prescription drug benefit to lower costs now" (Wegner, CongressDaily/AM, 5/24).
Meanwhile, in their push to create their own Medicare plan, Democrats continue to focus on drug costs, something that the GOP bill does not seem to address, CongressDaily reports. Reps. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) and Tom Allen (D-Maine) unveiled two bills yesterday that they said would help lower drug costs. The first would provide the FDA with more staff to monitor direct-to-consumer drug ads and would give the agency the authority to levy fines of up to $10 million for ads deemed false or misleading. The second bill would give $25 million to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to study how well various drugs work in comparison to others. Berry, a pharmacist by training, said that these types of studies are common for agricultural products, "but we don't do that for prescription medicine" (CongressDaily, 5/23). Democrats have said that any Medicare drug benefit will not be economically viable unless steps are taken to reduce rising drug costs (California Healthline, 5/8).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.