Sen. Daschle Vows To Pass Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit Bill Before Recess
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) yesterday "reiterated his vow" to continue debate on a Medicare prescription drug benefit until a consensus emerges, CongressDaily reports. Daschle said that passing such a bill was his "highest priority," adding that the Senate "won't do other things that are very important" -- including consideration of legislation to establish a new Department of Homeland Security -- until a prescription drug benefit is passed. "What we are hoping to do is to find bipartisan alternatives that can be presented on the floor ... before the end of this week," Daschle said (Rovner, CongressDaily, 7/25). He added that the Senate must pass a bill by Aug. 2, when it expects to begin a month-long recess (Pear, New York Times, 7/26). But Daschle acknowledged that Senate Democrats "remain divided" over whether to support scaled-down legislation that would help low-income seniors and those with the high drug costs or more comprehensive legislation that would merge competing Democratic- and Republican-backed proposals that were rejected earlier this week.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are working on a compromise to combine the two benefit plans (CongressDaily, 7/25). Under the possible compromise, Medicare would start providing drug coverage in 2005 and private insurers and health plans would begin to contract with the government to offer the benefit in future years. They would be required to provide benefit packages similar to those proposed in the Democratic plan. Insurers would slowly assume the financial risk of providing coverage, but the government would limit their potential losses and profits. Medicare would deliver the benefit in areas where private insurers do not. Most Democrats support a proposal by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Zell Miller (D-Ga.) that would have provided a comprehensive benefit at a cost $594 billion over seven years, while most Republicans supported a proposal by Sens. Charles Grassley (R- Iowa), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), John Breaux (D-La.) and James Jeffords (I-Vt.) that would have cost $370 billion over 10 years (California Healthline, 7/25).
Proposals for a drug benefit that focuses on low-income beneficiaries include a plan sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) that expands on a proposal by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Ensign (R-Nev.) defeated Wednesday. The new plan would spend $400 billion to provide comprehensive prescription drug coverage for people with incomes less than 150% or 200% of the federal poverty level. The proposal also would cover 90% of annual drug costs over $4,000 for all Medicare beneficiaries. Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) have drafted another proposal that also expands on the defeated Hagel-Ensign bill but limits total spending to $300 billion, the New York Times reports. The Hagel-Ensign bill would have provided prescription drug assistance on a sliding scale based on income (New York Times, 7/26.)
Meanwhile, AARP officials yesterday said that if a compromise on a comprehensive Medicare drug benefit cannot be reached in the Senate, the group would support a "slimmed-down" Medicare drug benefit that provides assistance for low-income beneficiaries. John Rother, AARP's policy director, said that a plan focusing on low-income seniors "looks like where [the debate] is going," adding that while AARP members would be "disappointed" not to have a comprehensive plan, "they'll be OK" (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 7/26).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.