Senate To Use Generics Bill as Vehicle to Bring Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit to Floor
With the Senate Finance Committee unable to reach a consensus on competing Medicare prescription drug benefit bills, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) will instead bring legislation designed to promote generic medications to the floor, the Washington Times reports. The bill, called the Greater Access to Affordable Pharmaceuticals Act, was approved by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last week and seeks to increase competition by preventing brand-name pharmaceutical firms from blocking generic drugs from entering the market (Fagan, Washington Times, 7/13). It would amend a provision in the 1984 Hatch-Waxman law that allows brand-name drug companies to receive an automatic 30-month patent extension from the FDA when they file a lawsuit against generic drug makers for alleged patent infringement. It also would prevent brand-name companies from paying generic manufacturers to keep their products off the market and would allow generic companies to legally challenge "frivolous patents," including "superficial changes" in a treatment's color or physical design intended only to "stifle competition" (California Healthline, 7/12).
During floor debate on the generic drug bill, senators will be able to offer their Medicare prescription drug plans as amendments, Daschle said. "I'm hoping that we can achieve our work over the course of the next two weeks, that we can achieve a product that we can send to conference with the House," he added (Washington Times, 7/13). Republicans criticized the process, noting that any drug benefit offered as an amendment could create a "procedural quagmire" (Fulton, CongressDaily, 7/14). Under current budget rules, any bill costing more than $300 billion that bypasses the Senate Finance Committee must receive 60 votes to clear the Senate. "For us to set up a process that guarantees mutually assured destruction is wrong," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, adding, "It's time for us to act, get a bill through" (Washington Times, 7/15). Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the generics bill with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), said Daschle wanted the patent reforms to serve as a "base bill" because of its "breadth of support" (Carter, AP/Newark Star Ledger, 7/15).
When the Senate begins debate on the generic drug bill and the Medicare drug benefit plans, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) will be "at the center of the action," leading the Democratic floor action, the New York Times reports. Daschle named Stabenow to a Democratic task force on prescription drugs several months ago, and since then she has "harp[ed] on the issue" in response to voters' frustration over high drug prices. She has criticized Republican-backed Medicare drug benefit proposals for their reliance on the private sector, saying such coverage would be "unreliable and unstable" and likening it to the Medicare+Choice program, which numerous insurers have left, citing insufficient reimbursement. Since starting her political career in 1974, Stabenow has focused on health care issues and in the Senate has been a critic of the pharmaceutical industry (Pear, New York Times, 7/15).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.