Legislation Would Modify Medicare Drug Benefit
Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) on Tuesday introduced a bill that would alter the Medicare prescription drug benefit to allow Medicare beneficiaries to obtain drug coverage directly from Medicare itself, the Springfield Republican reports. The legislation also would eliminate the so-called "doughnut hole" coverage gap -- or the gap in coverage under which Medicare beneficiaries are responsible for annual drug costs between $2,250 and $5,100. -- and allow HHS to negotiate drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.
Kennedy said the 2003 Medicare law "was a nightmare of complexity and confusion." He said that during the launch of the drug benefit, "[s]eniors across the country were denied the drugs they need or were forced to pay exorbitant fees to fill their prescriptions."
Under the new bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), Medicare beneficiaries will no longer have to "rely on a bewildering array of private plans to meet their need for drugs," Kennedy said, adding, "In large cities and small rural areas, from Maine to California, to Alaska and Hawaii, Medicare will be there for every senior who wants it."
Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Right Center, said lawmakers "could add 500 amendments correcting the Medicare bill," but the "single solution" he will endorse is the provision allowing beneficiaries to obtain coverage directly through Medicare. "People will flock to that, and with good reason," Hayes said (Moriarty, Springfield Republican, 3/1).
Meanwhile, House Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday continued to review the first two months of the new drug benefit during a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee meeting, CQ HealthBeat reports. Republicans said the drug benefit has saved beneficiaries "hundreds, even thousands" of dollars on medication costs, CQ HealthBeat reports.
CMS Administrator Mark McClellan testified that enrollment in the drug benefit is "off to a strong start," adding that more than 25 million beneficiaries have drug coverage, many more are enrolling each week and costs are lower than expected.
Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) said, "That sounds like a success to me, not a failure." Barton also pledged "aggressive oversight" of the drug benefit (Carey, CQ HealthBeat, 3/1). He said Democrats have been "scaring" beneficiaries away from the drug benefit by criticizing the program (CongressDaily, 3/2).
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) called for additional hearings on the benefit to allow Democrats to call witnesses to speak about the program. He added, "I believe we need to overhaul this program, so that the 'D' [in Medicare Part D] comes to stand for 'dependable' -- just like the Medicare coverage seniors know and trust" (CQ HealthBeat, 3/1).
In related news, Senate Finance Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday sent a letter to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) saying Democrats' were too negative in comments about the drug benefit during recent meetings with constituents, CongressDaily reports. Grassley wrote, "I am perplexed that the Democratic Leadership has chosen to sacrifice beneficiaries' well being and health for its own political gain and again implore the Democratic Leadership to reconsider its irresponsible approach" (CongressDaily, 3/2).
Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) on Tuesday sent a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt requesting an extension until March 31 of the deadline for the federal government to reimburse states for costs related to the drug benefit, the Bangor Daily News reports. The government initially said it would reimburse states for such costs through mid-February and then extended the deadline to March 8.
Baldacci said more than 10,000 state residents who are eligible for the most financial aid under the drug benefit still are not properly enrolled in Medicare drug plans and "continue to have high copays and ... deductibles." He added that "much progress has been made" but that there "remain many outstanding issues with identifying" beneficiaries who are eligible for the subsidy (Bangor Daily News, 3/1).