Today’s Senate Vote on Compromise Medicare Rx Drug Benefit Proposal Seen as ‘Last Chance’
Senate Democrats last night delayed a vote on a compromise Medicare prescription drug benefit proposal until today in a "last-ditch effort to round up" the 60 votes needed under Senate rules to pass the measure, the Wall Street Journal reports (Lueck, Wall Street Journal, 7/31). Sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), the proposal would provide comprehensive prescription drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level, about $17,720 for individuals and $23,880 for couples. In addition, the measure would provide complete drug coverage for beneficiaries after their annual out-of-pocket prescription drug costs exceed $3,300, minus a $10 per prescription copayment. Medicare beneficiaries who do not qualify for comprehensive coverage would receive a 5% federal subsidy and a pharmacy discount card, which could offer annual savings of 20% or more on medications. Under the bill, all but low-income Medicare beneficiaries would have to pay a $25 annual enrollment fee to receive prescription drug coverage. Beneficiaries would not have to pay monthly premiums or deductibles. The legislation would cost an estimated $395 billion over 10 years (California Healthline, 7/30). While Democrats have "rallied behind" the plan, they have been unable to attract enough Republican support, the Washington Post reports (Dewar/Goldstein, Washington Post, 7/31).
Many Republicans have criticized the plan, saying that the tripartisan proposal they supported, which was rejected by the Senate last week, would have covered more seniors at a lower cost (Pear, New York Times, 7/31). "You don't look to a $400 billion program that costs more than is necessary and covers less [people] than some of the other proposals," Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said. He added that he would push for a program "targeted to those low-income elderly that need help without it blowing a hole in the Medicare program, or Medicaid for that matter" (Frandsen/Wheeler, Chicago Sun-Times, 7/31). Besides Smith, the only other Republican to publicly announce support for the compromise plan is Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) (Rovner/Fulton, CongressDaily/AM, 7/31). The Bush administration opposes the Graham-Smith bill. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said the proposal is a "step backward in the Medicare debate" (Wall Street Journal, 7/31). Thompson added, "Other proposals already considered by the Senate do a far better job of helping seniors at lower cost" (Washington Post, 7/31).
The vote on the compromise plan may be the last chance for the Senate to pass a Medicare drug benefit this year because Daschle has said that he would end the two-week debate on the issue today to allow the Senate to consider a defense spending bill and a trade measure before adjourning Friday for a month-long recess (Davies, Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/31). Failing to pass the compromise bill would mark the fourth time in eight days that the Senate has rejected a Medicare prescription drug bill, the Sun-Times reports (Chicago Sun-Times, 7/31). Even if the measure wins the 60 votes needed, the issue will likely head to a conference committee because the compromise plan is "significantly different" from a bill the House passed in June, the Inquirer reports (Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/31).
In addition to the scheduled vote on the Graham-Smith plan, the Senate is expected to address several other prescription drug measures today, including the underlying generic drug legislation that has been used as a vehicle for the Medicare drug proposal (CongressDaily/AM, 7/31). The generics bill (S 812) would close loopholes in the 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act that delay generic drug competition by giving brand-name drug makers only one 30-month patent extension per product. The bill also would prevent brand-name drug companies from paying generic manufacturers to keep their products off the market and would allow generic drug companies to legally challenge "frivolous patents," including "superficial changes" in a treatment's color or physical design intended only to "stifle competition" (California Healthline, 7/30). As expected, the Federal Trade Commission yesterday released a report finding that brand-name pharmaceutical companies have used loopholes in the law to delay generic drug competition. The report recommends that Congress limit brand-name drug companies to one 30-month delay to resolve patent disputes, a provision included in the generic drug legislation (Pugh, Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/31). Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a sponsor of the original law, said the Senate should pull the generic legislation from the floor to allow the Senate to review the study. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), who sponsored the reform measure, said the "report boosts support for their bill." Schumer added, "We don't need any more studies. We don't need any more delay. It's time for Congress to act" (Fulton, CongressDaily, 7/30). The Senate also is expected to approve an amendment sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that would allow drug reimportation from Canada and an amendment that would allow states to use the purchasing power of their Medicaid programs to negotiate prescription drug discounts for residents who would not otherwise qualify for Medicaid (CongressDaily/AM, 7/31).
PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" yesterday reported on Senate debate on the Graham-Smith bill. The segment includes comments from Sens. John Breaux (D-La.), Daschle, Graham, Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) (Holman, "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," PBS, 7/30). A full transcript of the report is available online. In addition, the segment is available online in RealPlayer. NPR's "All Things Considered" yesterday reported on the FTC report on loopholes in the Hatch-Waxman law (Prakash, "All Things Considered," NPR, 7/30). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.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.