Medicare Bill Likely To Pass House - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

01/11/07 - Washington, D.C.

Medicare Bill Likely To Pass House

A veto threat from President Bush isn't deterring Democrats from pushing legislation that would require the government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare patients.

The House planned to consider legislation Friday that would require the secretary of Health and Human Services to conduct those negotiations. The bill is one of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's six priorities for the new Democratic-controlled House.

Bush said Thursday that competition is already reducing prices for seniors and creating an environment that encourages the development of new drugs.

"Government interference impedes competition, limits access to lifesaving drugs, reduces convenience for beneficiaries and ultimately increases costs to taxpayers, beneficiaries and all American citizens alike," the administration said in a written statement.

Presidents have vetoed 1,485 bills during the nation's history. Congress overrode only 106 of them, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Such overrides require that two-thirds of those present in each chamber vote to override the president's veto.

Currently, private drug plans negotiate how much they'll pay for the medicine their customers take. Those plans get a federal subsidy, plus consumers pay for a portion of the medicine.

Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., said the government can do better than individual insurance companies in getting discounts.

"The president and his Republicans allies have argued that this bill would do nothing. Then why, I must ask, would he bother to veto it?" said Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Charlie Rangel, D-N.Y. urged Bush to withhold his veto threat and work with the Congress to improve the drug program.

Democrats have said that savings produced by the negotiations would be used to reduce a coverage gap that is common in many plans. Reducing the gap, known as the doughnut hole, would lower those beneficiaries' out-of-pocket costs.

But Republicans counter that there wouldn't be any savings. Also, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation was unlikely to result in savings to taxpayers.

The program cost about $30 billion in its first year. Most of the money went to insurers that administer the drug coverage.

Republicans argue that individual insurance companies already negotiate lower prices on behalf of their customers, and that the Democratic approach was tantamount to calling for federal price controls.

They note that the program is coming in under budget and seniors are expressing support for the benefit.

"What we set out to do, we accomplished," said Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., during a hearing Thursday about the drug benefit. "We had a success, a very big success."

Under the Medicare prescription drug program, insurance companies offer competing coverage plans, and seniors may enroll in the one they like best. The administration announced on Wednesday that 23.5 million seniors had enrolled in stand-alone plans as of Jan. 1.

While a majority of seniors are expressing satisfaction with the program, surveys also indicate that they overwhelmingly want the government to have the power to negotiate drug prices.

A survey of seniors for the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that about 81 percent of seniors want to let the government use its buying power to negotiate drug prices, including 67 percent who said they strongly favor such negotiations.

Republicans are expected to largely oppose the legislation coming to the House floor. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and a co-sponsor of HR 4, said that about a dozen Republican lawmakers have co-sponsored similar legislation previously, and they could be expected to vote for requiring government negotiations.

"I don't believe the brand-name prescription drug industry can be trusted to deliver the lowest prices for our beneficiaries," she said.

The trade association representing drug makers has taken out full-page ads noting seniors' overwhelming satisfaction with the program, which kicked in on Jan. 1, 2006. However, the AARP says that government negotiations would make a good program better.


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