Poised To Assume Control of Congress, Republicans Lawmakers Outline Health Care Agenda
Republican lawmakers, who will assume control of both the House and Senate in the 108th Congress next year, plan to address a number of health care issues, "acutely aware that a one-party government is fraught with risks as well as opportunities," the New York Times reports (Toner/Hulse, New York Times, 11/10). President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who will likely assume the position of Senate majority leader, said that health care issues such as a Medicare prescription drug benefit, tax credits for the uninsured and limits on damages awarded in medical malpractice cases will have a "high priority" in the next Congress. A summary of the Republican agenda on health care appears below.
- Medicare prescription drug benefit: Republican lawmakers hope to pass a Medicare prescription drug benefit that would "rely heavily" on private insurers and pharmacy benefit managers to provide coverage. Republicans said that they would base legislation on a "tripartisan" bill that failed earlier this year in the Senate. The bill -- sponsored by Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who will likely assume the chair of the Senate Finance Committee; Orrin Hatch (R-Utah); Olympia Snowe (R-Maine); John Breaux (D-La.); and James Jeffords (I-Vt.) -- would cost $370 billion over 10 years. Under the legislation, Medicare beneficiaries would have to pay a $24 monthly premium and a $250 annual deductible, after which the government would cover 50% of their annual prescription drug costs up to $3,450. After Medicare beneficiaries spent $3,700 out-of-pocket, the government would cover 90% of their annual prescription drug costs. Republicans said that they may add a Medicare prescription drug benefit to a bill that would extend a 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cut passed last year (Pear, New York Times, 11/10). On NBC's "Meet the Press," Lott predicted that the Senate next year could pass legislation to make the tax cut permanent and to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare (Russert, "Meet the Press," NBC, 11/10). A full transcript of the program is available online.
- The Uninsured: Republican lawmakers plan to propose legislation that would provide tax credits to help the uninsured purchase health insurance. As a model for the legislation, Republicans cited a bill passed earlier this year that authorized tax credits for workers displaced by international trade. The bill provides uninsured trade-displaced workers with a refundable tax credit to cover 65% of the cost of their health insurance premiums. Democrats have generally opposed tax credits in favor of Medicaid expansion, but the Times reports that some would consider tax credits, provided that the government "sets standards for the insurance bought with such assistance."
- Medical malpractice lawsuits: Republican lawmakers plan to introduce legislation to limit the damages awarded in medical malpractice lawsuits (Pear, New York Times, 11/10). The House in September passed a bill that would limit the amount of noneconomic and punitive damages that juries could award in malpractice lawsuits, but the Senate has not passed similar legislation (American Health Line, 9/27). President Bush has said that he "strongly supports" the House bill, which he maintains would reduce malpractice insurance costs for physicians and hospitals (Pear, New York Times, 11/10).
- Homeland Security: The Los Angeles Times reports that President Bush's "enhanced clout" after the elections last week has provided "fresh momentum" to legislation to establish a Department of Homeland Security (Anderson, Simon, Los Angeles Times, 11/11). Under the legislation, which the House passed earlier this year, the department would include parts of 22 federal entities. The CDC would play an important role in the department; the bill would expand and modernize the agency's Epidemic Intelligence Service to improve the nation's response to a bioterrorist attack. The bill has stalled in the Senate because some Democrats maintain that the legislation would reduce civil service protections and other rights for employees of the department (American Health Line, 11/8). The Times reports that Bush over the weekend worked with lawmakers on a compromise (Los Angeles Times, 11/11).
In related news, analysts said that "heavy spending" on behalf of Republican candidates by the pharmaceutical industry has resulted in a new Congress that will "certainly be more sympathetic" to industry concerns, the AP/Chicago Tribune reports. In the last election cycle, the pharmaceutical industry, the ninth-largest campaign contributor, spent $18.1 million in donations, 73% of which went to Republican candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The pharmaceutical industry also spent $16 million on two senior advocacy groups -- the United Seniors Association and the 60 Plus Association -- that sponsored campaign ads in support of Republican candidates. However, analysts said that efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to block legislation to increase access to generic treatments or to win "severe limits" on a Medicare prescription drug benefit could result in a "serious backlash," such as price controls on brand-name treatments (Agovino, AP/Chicago Tribune, 11/11).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.