MEDICARE: DOJ Against Separate Benefit Board
Lawmakers wanting to create an independent board to oversee a Medicare drug benefit may face a battle with the Justice Department, as the agency today announced that such a panel would "probably be unconstitutional because the new entity would not be accountable to the president." Attempting to reduce HCFA's authority, many of the top drug benefit proposals call for the formation of a "quasi-independent board" that would oversee the new benefit and possibly some parts of the Medicare program. The news came from a DOJ letter to Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who, like the Clinton administration, opposes the formation of such an independent board. Many lawmakers fear that if HCFA regulates the drug benefit, "it may eventually try to regulate drug prices." Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who introduced legislation calling for an independent board along with Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said he "saw no basis for the Justice Department's concerns." He said the new board would be similar to the Social Security Administration: outside HHS, but still under the executive branch's authority. Aides to both Frist and Breaux add that lawyers with the Congressional Research Service have assured them that their legislation "would not violate any provision of the Constitution." But Rockefeller said, "We cannot pass the buck. Removing Medicare from the accountability of Congress and the president amounts to an abdication of duty that would risk the health care of millions of America's seniors." The DOJ's position could complicate the popular election year issue. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Texas), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said, "We want to work with President Clinton in a bipartisan fashion to make a prescription drug benefit under Medicare a reality, not a political bumper sticker" (Pear, New York Times, 5/3).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.