Republican Conferees Report Progress on Reconciliation of Medicare Bills, But Agreement Still Far Off
After a two-hour meeting yesterday, the 10 Republican members of the conference committee charged with reconciling the House and Senate Medicare bills (HR 1 and S 1) said they had made progress but "still appeared to be far from agreement" on several major issues, the New York Times reports (Pear, New York Times, 9/5). The meeting was scheduled to discuss stalled negotiations as a result of an ongoing disagreement between Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Grassley has said that aides to Thomas, who as head of the conference committee sets the conference committee's agenda, told Senate staffers they are not permitted to discuss provisions in both Medicare bills that would allocate at least $25 billion to increase payments to rural Medicare providers (California Healthline, 9/3). The Times reports that Grassley and Thomas made only a few brief comments after the meeting, none of which indicated they had resolved their disagreements (New York Times, 9/5). According to CongressDaily/AM, the disagreement between Grassley and Thomas "apparently remains unresolved." An "angry-looking" Grassley declined to comment on the issue but said that "progress is made at every meeting," CongressDaily/AM reports (Rovner, CongressDaily/AM, 9/5). Republicans aides called the meeting "intense" and said it included a discussion of provisions that would increase the participation of private health plans in Medicare (Fagan, Washington Times, 9/5). House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee Chair Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) said Republicans attending the meeting discussed "very fundamental issues," adding that "there was a little bit of yelling." House Energy and Commerce Chair Billy Tauzin (R-La.) said, "We went through a lot of our positions to make sure we're all in agreement before we go in to meet with the Democrats" (CongressDaily/AM, 9/5).
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) yesterday said he believes Congress will pass a Medicare bill before the end of the current session, the AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Frist said that several "stumbles" in the process to reach an agreement should be expected because the legislation is complex. He added, "I'm absolutely confident we're going to have a bill" (Espo, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9/5). However, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said, "There is significant doubt [among some House Republicans] that this legislation has the momentum to make it to the finish line" (Washington Times, 9/5). GOP Medicare conferees have yet to decide whether negotiators or President Bush should set a firm deadline to finish work on a final Medicare bill. Grassley has been encouraging negotiators to adopt a deadline of Columbus Day, Oct. 13. Frist yesterday said he "would like to see [a final bill] by the end of September" -- a date that "virtually everyone involved" in the debate considers "highly optimistic," CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 9/4). Thomas said the full conference committee is scheduled to meet next week to vote on several tentative agreements developed by staffers over the August recess, including a drug discount card and Medicare coverage for preventive care services (New York Times, 9/5).
The New York Times today examines "how pharmaceutical manufacturers helped shape" the current Medicare drug benefit proposals. The drug industry has had a "single goal": to defeat any legislation that would allow Medicare to use its purchasing power to negotiate discounts on the price of medications, according to the Times. Drug industry executives decided "if there had to be a prescription drug benefit," it should be administered by private insurers who would negotiate prices on their own without any influence from Medicare, the Times reports. The current Medicare reform proposals would rely on private health plans to deliver a prescription drug benefit. According to the Times, the current drug benefit structure is "tailor-made to the [drug] industry's specifications" and results from a "calculated decision" by the drug industry to "throw its financial weight" behind the Republican party. The drug industry donated $50 million to political campaigns over the last four years, mostly to Republicans. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) said, "The drug lobby has just emasculated Congress with tons of money. They bought themselves a deal." According to the Times, Republicans say their Medicare reform plan will lead to drug discounts and that the drug industry "gave up as much as it got." Grassley said, "I think the drug industry would rather not have any bill. But they know there is going to be a bill because of public demand for it, and I think they are just swallowing hard" (Gay Stolberg/Harris, New York Times, 9/5).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.