House Ways and Means Committee Passes GOP Medicare Reform Plan
The House Ways and Means Committee yesterday voted along party lines to pass a Republican-backed Medicare reform package, which in part would provide Medicare beneficiaries a prescription drug benefit, CongressDaily/AM reports. Under the $350 billion, 10-year House GOP plan, Medicare beneficiaries would purchase drug coverage directly from private insurance companies. As introduced, the bill would have Medicare beneficiaries pay a $250 annual deductible and a $34 monthly premium. Low-income seniors would be exempt from the premiums and deductible. The government would cover 80% of seniors' annual prescription drug costs up to $1,000, 50% up to $2,000 and none of the costs between $2,000 and $4,500, after which a catastrophic benefit would begin. However, before passing the bill, the committee lowered the cap to $3,800 (Rovner/Fulton, CongressDaily/AM, 6/19). The House Energy and Commerce Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill today, but a vote is not expected until tomorrow (Carter, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 6/19). The catastrophic level could be set even lower during the Energy and Commerce Committee's markup of the bill, CongressDaily/AM reports (CongressDaily/AM, 6/19). House Republicans plan to schedule a floor vote on the package before the July 4 recess. "I see no bumps in the road," Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas) said (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 6/19).
During the Ways and Means Committee's markup of the Republican bill, Democrats "launched a frontal attack" on the plan (Rovner, CongressDaily, 6/18). Pointing to the fact that no costs are covered between $2,000 and $3,800, Democrats on the committee said the bill is "too complicated and insufficient to meet seniors' needs" (CongressDaily/AM, 6/19). Families USA Executive Director Ron Pollack said that the gap in coverage is larger than it appears because the $2,000 amount is total spending, while the $3,800 cap is spending "not otherwise covered by the program." Seniors would actually need to buy $4,900 worth of pharmaceuticals before the Republican plan would cover the remainder of their drug costs, he said. House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) called the plan "political cover" for Republicans (CongressDaily, 6/18) Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, said, "Even if the plan did work, it is not very generous." Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee attempted to add an amendment to the bill that would have, among other changes, covered all prescription drug costs more than $2,000, but that attempt was defeated.
Having failed to amend the Republican bill, Democrats sought to draw attention to what they say are "broad problems" in the legislation, specifically its reliance on the private market and its varying premiums. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said, "The majority now has us steering into a drug ditch, where seniors will pay more and more for less and less" (CongressDaily/AM, 6/19). House Democrats have proposed a plan, which would cost between $750 billion and $800 billion over 10 years, that would cover 80% of seniors' annual drug costs up to $2,000 and 100% above that figure. Seniors would pay a $100 annual deductible and a $25 monthly premium (California Healthline, 6/18). Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) said the Democratic proposal spends three times as much as the Republican plan, but only provides twice the benefit (CongressDaily/AM, 6/19). Republicans also said that Democrats are more interested in having a campaign issue than actually passing a benefit. In such a "polarized environment," the only source of agreement is that the chances of any Medicare drug benefit becoming law this year are slim, the New York Times reports (Toner, New York Times, 6/19).
In related news, pharmaceutical companies are among the donors paying $250,000 each to attend a Republican fundraiser with President Bush. Scheduled for this evening, the event is expected to raise as mush as $30 million for the Republican Party. GlaxoSmithKline contributed at least $250,000 and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also paid $250,000. Merck, Bayer and Eli Lilly each paid $50,000 to "sponsor" a table at the event. According to a House Republican leadership aide, Republicans are working to ensure their Medicare prescription drug bill "suits drug companies," the Washington Post reports (VandeHei/Eilperin, Washington Post, 6/19). Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wrote in a letter to potential donors that regaining Republican control of the Senate would "relax the stranglehold of rules, regulations and restrictions on American business" (Oppel, New York Times, 6/19).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.