Rx DRUG COSTS: Lott, Hastert Back 5-Point Medicare Plan
In a letter to be delivered today to President Clinton, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) outline five Medicare-related proposals that they say Congress and the White House should agree to enact before the legislative session ends, including a plan to help low-income Medicare beneficiaries cover prescription drug costs, the AP/Baltimore Sun reports. "Challenging" Clinton on a "campaign issue that favors Democrats," Hastert and Lott write, "Sadly, it has proved very difficult to get a bipartisan compromise [on the issue of prescription drugs]. We hope that partisan bickering would not prevent us from helping those who need it most now." The five proposals include:
- Securing a Medicare "lockbox" to ensure that Medicare funds are not diverted to other federal programs;
- "Swift passage" of prescription-drug legislation to assist low-income Medicare recipients "who currently have to choose between prescription drugs and food;"
- Allocating $40 billion over the next five years for drug benefits for all seniors and to "modernize the overall Medicare program;"
- Earmarking an additional $21 billion over the next five years for Medicare providers, some of which will be used as an incentive for Medicare plans to retain prescription drug coverage;
- Passage of legislation permitting seniors to purchase lower priced prescription drugs in foreign countries, such as Canada.
Countdown to Election Day
Responding to the letter, White House policy adviser Joel Johnson indicated that the proposals "don't go far enough" to assuage soaring drug costs. "This [plan] sounds like the Republican leadership is giving up on the idea of a real prescription drug benefit this year. The president is not giving up," Johnson said. Johnson added that he believes "election-year politics" sparked the Hastert-Lott letter. The AP/Baltimore Sun reports that with the presidential election approaching, both parties are racing to stake claim on an issue particularly important among the "battleground states of the Midwest" -- and an issue for which voters currently favor Democrats over Republicans. According to anonymous "GOP sources," after polls found that prescription drug costs top the list of voter concerns, House Republicans felt "they needed to show the public they had a plan to help the neediest seniors." Lott and Hastert maintain in their letter to Clinton that "[w]e are committed to provid[ing] a prescription drug benefit to needy seniors, and we remain committed to helping all seniors with the cost of prescription drugs" (9/25). But Laura Nichols, aide to House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, said the proposal "sounds like a desperate attempt on the eve of the election for the Republicans to look like they're on the right side of the issue. Until the Republicans agree to deliver a prescription drug benefit through Medicare, they are nibbling around the edges of the problem" (AP/Worcester Telegram & Gazette, 9/25).