House passes Medicare prescription drug bill

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans pushed a Medicare prescription drug bill through the House early Friday, capping a week where the GOP used its slim majority to also allow the government to borrow more money and advance a trade bill.

GOP leaders had lobbied reluctant members all week to support the bill. In the end, the measure, which has yet to be taken up in the Senate, passed by a near party line 221-208 vote, giving Republicans a victory to tout as they head home for a weeklong July 4 recess.

The vote capped a marathon session that lasted into the early hours of Friday morning. It provided an emotional debate with both sides accusing the other of neglecting the needs of the nation's 39 million seniors on Medicare.

``Watch out grandma,'' said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. ``GOP now stands for Get Old People.''

Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. and an author of the bill, retorted, ``We all love our mothers and our fathers. We all love our grandparents. How dare you suggest otherwise.''

Republicans accused Democrats of wanting a budget-busting plan that would hurt Medicare in the long run. ``We're putting people before politics by lowering the costs of prescription drugs now and guaranteeing an affordable benefit under Medicare,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

The House bill would spend $320 billion over 10 years to offer seniors a prescription drug benefit and rely mainly on private insurers to administer the plan.

Seniors would pay monthly premiums of about $33 and a yearly deductible of roughly $250.

The government would pay 80 percent of the next $1,000 of drug costs and 50 percent of the subsequent $1,000.

All beneficiaries _ low-income included _ would have to pick up the tab beyond that, until they reached $3,700 in out-of-pocket expenses, at which time all additional costs would be covered.

The Bush administration endorsed the House Republican plan, saying the proposals offered by Democrats would ``impose trillions of dollars in new obligations on a Medicare program that already faces a funding shortfall for the baby boom generation.''

Democrats complained that the gap in coverage in the Republican plan _ between $2,001 and $3,700 _ would leave seniors burdened with too many out-of-pocket costs. They accused Republicans of being beholden to big business.

``In the end, this Republican bill listens not to the people of this country,'' said Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri. ``It listens to the pharmaceutical companies and the insurance companies.''

Democrats were unable to offer their alternative proposal, estimated to cost between $800 billion and $1 trillion with a $25 monthly premium and $100 yearly deductible.

The debate was a prelude to the fall elections, when both parties are expected to use the issue to try to attract senior voters, who turn out disproportionately in midterm elections.

The bill also includes nearly $30 billion in additional initiatives related to Medicare. Among them are provisions to provide physicals for new senior citizens as well as to give billions of extra dollars to Medicare providers like doctors and hospitals, who have complained about rising health care costs in the program.

The bill capped a series of votes in the House, some by the narrowest of margins.

Thursday afternoon the House, in a 413-18 vote, passed a $355 billion defense spending bill that includes a pay raise for military personnel and some of the biggest funding increases for the military in decades.

Later, GOP leaders abruptly muscled through a $450 billion debt limit increase in a narrow 215-214 vote.

A day earlier, the House abruptly called up a bill to strengthen President Bush's authority to negotiate global trade deals. It passed 216-215.