Rx DRUG COSTS: Democrats Unite Behind Medicare Benefit
Several House and Senate Democrats yesterday "joined in a display of unity at the White House," rallying around their prescription drug plan, which would provide benefits for all Medicare recipients, the New York Times reports. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) is expected to introduce the bill today, with 32 Democratic senators as co-sponsors, while House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) said he will introduce a "nearly identical" bill soon. Democrats proposed covering half of the first $2,000 for seniors' drug expenses beginning in 2002, and half of the first $5,000 by 2009. For seniors with "very high expenses," Medicare would cover seniors' expenses after they paid $3,000 or $4,000 out-of-pocket. Seventy-three-year-old Betty Dizik spoke during the event, testifying that "she sometimes skipped prescribed medicines for diabetes and a heart condition because she could not afford them." She said, "I am not asking for a handout or for charity. I am willing to work and do my part. I am just asking for a little help." The Democrats' move is more of a show of unity, as they "have no chance of seeing their bills enacted" in a Republican-controlled Congress, the Times reports. But "they hope that by taking a unified position, they can put pressure on the Republicans to enter negotiations leading to the enactment" of a drug benefit this year. President Clinton said, "We all know we can't achieve our efforts without bipartisan support in the Congress. That's why, just as we are trying to do with the patients' bill of rights, we want to reach across the aisle to encourage Republican support, as well. This can and should be a truly bipartisan effort" (Pear, 5/11). Bob Blendon, a Harvard University professor of health policy and political analysis, said, "It's a very good issue in the election; it will be tougher to enact and make the plan work. ... We'll have two divergent views, but they're not going to do anything."
On the Republican Front
Republicans expressed skepticism about the plan. A letter signed by House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Archer (R-Texas) and Ways and Means health subcommittee Chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) states, "We are concerned that the government would have too heavy a hand in controlling the drug benefit, denying some seniors the right to choose the coverage that best fits their needs" (Love, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 5/11). But House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) gave the proposal some cautious praise, saying, "We're happy Democrats have abandoned their price fixing plan and have started to move in our direction." Thomas also lauded the proposal for adding a "catastrophic" out-of-pocket spending cap (Rovner, CongressDaily/A.M., 5/11). As for Senate Republicans, they still have yet to introduce a plan, but Senate Finance Committee Chair William Roth (R-Del.) is drafting such legislation (New York Times, 5/11).