MEDICARE DRUG BENEFIT: House Republicans Unveil Plan
House Republicans yesterday officially unveiled a plan that would provide a prescription drug benefit for elderly Americans, the New York Times reports. Under the proposal, the government would offer subsidies to private insurers to cover drug costs for Medicare patients, and in cases where no private insurance firms enter the market, the government would provide funding for coverage. "The federal government, under our bill, will be the insurer of last resort," Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), the chief author of the legislation, explained. He added, "Our plan does not leave seniors out in the cold if private insurance companies don't participate." The Republican plan would require Medicare beneficiaries to pay a $35-$40 premium each month and the first $200-$250 of drug expenses per year, while the government would cover half of the next $2,000-$2,200 in prescription costs. Republican leaders expect to push the bill through the House later this month. Ari Fleischer, a spokesperson for Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R), said the GOP presidential candidate backed the plan and hoped Congress could reach an agreement with the president this year. (Pear, 6/14).
While House Republicans touted their prescription bill as a bipartisan effort, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has offered to cooperate, complained that GOP leaders have shut Democrats out of the drafting process, CongressDaily reports. "You don't just keep language in your hip pocket and then stand around and say it's bipartisan," Wyden said, claiming that he is "not interested in trappings of bipartisanship." Last month, he and Thomas, the House Ways and Means health subcommittee chair, assembled a list of bipartisan principles to help shape the prescription drug legislation. The House Commerce Committee will hold a meeting today with the Ways and Means panel, which is expected to mark up the bill on Monday. Democrats contend that the schedule will prevent them from participating in the process. "The speed at which we're moving -- with no bill -- defines partisanship," Ways and Means ranking member Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said. Republicans have met with "Blue Dog" Democrats over the past few weeks and hope to amass more Democratic support before the bill reaches the floor in the next two weeks (Fulton/Rovner, 6/14).
A Bad Mistake?
President Clinton attacked the Republican plan at a White House event yesterday, calling it a "bad mistake." Clinton said, "I am quite concerned that the proposal the House Republicans intend to put forward ... won't help the Americans who need it the most." He added, "There's no point in pretending that only poor seniors need help. That is not true" (Babington/Eilperin, Washington Post, 6/14). According to Clinton and other Democrats, the private insurance market is a "proven failure" and cannot successfully manage a new prescription drug program. "We don't want a bill that is just helping pharmaceutical companies (and) HMOs," Rangel said (Rosenblatt, Los Angeles Times, 6/14). Chris Jennings, the health policy coordinator at the White House, also worries about the equity of the Republican proposal, noting that some beneficiaries in different states would have to pay "very different" premiums for the same drug benefit (New York Times, 6/14). Although Republicans accused Democrats of "trying to create friction," even insurance industry officials, concerned about the feasibility of "drug only" policies for Medicare beneficiaries, remain skeptical about the GOP proposal. Health Insurance Association of America President Chip Kahn said that "we continue to believe the concept of so-called drug-only private insurance simply would not work in practice" (Love, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/14).