Political Maneuvering Prevented Passage of Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit
If the Senate cannot reach a compromise this fall on a Medicare prescription drug benefit, it will mean that Democrats have "failed to deliver on their signature issue in an election year, again," the Christian Science Monitor reports. Although partisan "gridlock" contributed to the difficulty in passing a benefit, the Monitor reports that the "decisive moment" in the debate came when Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) pulled a bill from the Senate Finance Committee and onto the floor (Chaddock, Christian Science Monitor, 8/2). Instead of permitting the committee to finish work on compromise legislation, Daschle allowed senators to offer their drug benefit proposals as amendments to a generic drug bill. However, under current budget rules, any bill costing more than $300 billion that bypasses the Senate Finance Committee must receive 60 votes to clear the Senate (California Healthline, 7/15). Such a strategy required Republican support without losing the backing of "hard-core" Democrats.
The Monitor reports that Daschle placed the measure on the floor -- a strategy Daschle used previously on big issues -- because it appeared that the consensus being reached in committee would not be favorable to the Democratic caucus; Democrats were concerned that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chair of the Finance Committee, would "lean toward the GOP" because he faces a competitive election this year in Montana, where only one in three voters backed a Democrat in the last presidential election (Christian Science Monitor, 8/2). Daschle also was aware that failure to pass a drug benefit would be a "blow to his party," the New York Times reports. Therefore, he allowed more than two weeks of debate and attempted "a last-ditch compromise" when a Democratic-backed proposal could not win 60 votes (Mitchell, New York Times, 8/2). "My hope was that if we placed this issue on the floor, ultimately people would say, 'Look, it might not be exactly what we wanted but it's better than nothing," Daschle said (Christian Science Monitor, 8/2).
Republicans have used the Senate's failure to pass a Medicare drug benefit to question Daschle's leadership abilities, the Times reports (New York Times, 8/2). Given that the House passed a Medicare drug benefit plan, Republicans criticized Daschle for "yet another un-accomplishment." Senate Republicans maintain that they were nearing a compromise that could have passed the House, the Monitor reports. "The Senate majority leader has made himself chairman of every committee," Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. "If Baucus had had the freedom to work out a compromise, we would have had a bill today," he added (Christian Science Monitor, 8/2). Democrats, however, said Republicans were only interested in backing special interests. "The Republicans cannot say no to the drug companies," Daschle said (New York Times, 8/2). While Republicans and Democrats continue to blame each other for the failure, interest groups for seniors intend to "give lawmakers an earful" over the August recess. AARP CEO William Novelli said, "We're going to be working state fairs, community meetings, a number of events ... I think the message is going to be, 'How could you do this? Go back and get it done. There's no recess from high drug prices'" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/2).
In related prescription drug news, brand-name pharmaceutical companies are preparing to block a Senate-passed generic drug bill from passing the House, CongressDaily/AM reports (Fulton, CongressDaily/AM, 8/2). Sponsored by Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), the bill (S 812) would close loopholes in the 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act that delay generic drug competition by giving brand-name drug makers only one 30-month patent extension per product. The bill also would prevent brand-name drug companies from paying generic manufacturers to keep their products off the market and would allow generic drug companies to legally challenge "frivolous patents," including "superficial changes" in a treatment's color or physical design intended only to "stifle competition" (California Healthline, 8/1). House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said he is "mulling his options" on how to increase access to generic drugs, CongressDaily/AM reports. However, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America is opposing the bill and is circulating a letter from the Patent and Trademark Office that said the Senate bill would "undermine drug patent laws by restricting" brand-name drug makers' ability to protect their patents. PhRMA also is using parts of an FTC report that found the current system is working well to lobby against the bill (CongressDaily/AM, 8/2).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.