Senate Democrats Reintroduce Bills To Reduce Prescription Drug Prices
Senate Democrats yesterday reintroduced a series of bills that they said would help control the "spiraling cost" of prescription drugs, CongressDaily reports. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Commerce Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) reintroduced a bill (S 812) that would ease market entry for generic drugs. "Generic drugs are one of the real answers" to decreasing drug prices, Schumer said (Rovner, CongressDaily, 3/5). The bill, approved last year by the Senate but not by the House, would give generic drug makers the right to sue brand-name manufacturers that allegedly filed new patents solely to prevent competition. The bill also would require brand-name drug makers to file any suits against generic competitors within specific time limits (California Healthline, 10/22/02). Two other bills introduced yesterday were provisions originally attached to the McCain-Schumer legislation. One bill, by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), would allow U.S. consumers to reimport U.S.-made drugs from Canada, where the medications often are cheaper. The other bill, by Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), would "clarify" that states could extend the drug discounts companies currently give to state Medicaid programs to people not enrolled in the program, CongressDaily reports. "If we don't put some downward pressure on prescription drug prices, we'll simply break the bank," Dorgan said. Schumer said the series of bills would "lower costs without costing the federal government a red cent." Stabenow added, "We will see the marketplace drive prices down." However, the legislators acknowledged that they will face "heated opposition" from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which has "vehemently opposed" all three bills, CongressDaily reports. PhRMA has said that reimporting drugs from Canada could "threaten the safety" of the U.S. drug supply, has said that the McCain-Schumer generic drug bill "unfairly impinges" on the patent rights of brand-name drug companies and sued Maine over its attempt to extend Medicaid drug discounts to other populations, according to CongressDaily. The senators said they would try to attach the bills to any prescription drug legislation that comes to the Senate floor (CongressDaily, 3/5).
The senators' legislation comes one day after President Bush outlined his plan for Medicare reform, which includes proposals to offer beneficiaries drug coverage. In a briefing yesterday, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that Bush's proposed changes would likely not "drive down the costs of Medicare or resolve its long-term fiscal health." However, he called the plan a "giant step forward" (Lakely, Washington Times, 3/6). Under Bush's proposed framework, beneficiaries who remain in traditional Medicare would receive drug discount cards, with savings of 10% to 25% on prescriptions, and low-income beneficiaries in the traditional program would receive $600 per year to offset their drug costs. In 2006, all beneficiaries in traditional Medicare would receive catastrophic drug coverage, which would take effect after beneficiaries spent $5,500 to $7,000 on medications in a year. Under a second option, seniors could join a new private system called "Enhanced Medicare," which would begin in 2006 and give beneficiaries a more generous drug benefit, full coverage for preventive care and lower out-of-pocket costs for hospital stays. The "Enhanced Medicare" option would allow private health plans to offer different drug benefits, with different premiums, copayments and deductibles, so long as the plans meet "a basic federal standard," which is not yet set. The third option, called "Medicare Advantage," would be similar to Medicare+Choice, which offers beneficiaries a choice of private plans with and without drug coverage but no guaranteed drug benefit. Bush aides said that implementing the proposals under the administration's new Medicare framework would cost $400 billion over 10 years; the president's fiscal year 2004 budget proposal calls for a $6 billion "downpayment" on the plan (California Healthline, 3/5).
Thompson said that if implemented, the Bush outline would "probably" hasten Medicare's insolvency date of 2030 because the savings garnered from "millions of beneficiaries" enrolling in private, supplemental Medicare plans would not outweigh the cost of offering beneficiaries a drug benefit, the Wall Street Journal reports. The administration expects that 50% of all beneficiaries will move into one of the two private plan options offered. However, Thompson said the Bush proposal was "less financially burdensome" than just adding a drug benefit to Medicare without any reform, an option he said many legislators prefer, the Journal reports (Wall Street Journal, 3/6). "Congress has no great desire to work on Medicare. They just want to pass a prescription drug benefit without making any changes," Thompson said. He added that the drug benefit is "the dessert, that's the driving force. And unless we make some of the changes (now), we'll probably never get back to making the fundamental changes that we're trying to do with this program." Thompson said the issue of Medicare's projected financial solvency would be dealt with "in the future," adding that the administration is considering attaching its Medicare reform plan to this year's budget reconciliation bill, which would only need a simple majority to pass (Washington Times, 3/6).
NPR's "Morning Edition" today profiled PhRMA, which it says is a "Washington powerhouse" with more lobbyists than Congress has members, adding that the group is "smack in the middle of the battle" over adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. The segment includes comments from Public Citizen Congress Watch Director Frank Clemente, University of Southern California School of Pharmacy associate professor Michael Nichol, Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, Schumer and Stabenow (Overby, "Morning Edition," NPR, 3/6). The full segment is available in RealPlayer online.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.