Medicare Drugs Mulled in Senate

Thursday, June 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republicans are hailing their House-passed prescription drug bill as a historic new Medicare benefit, but its prospects are iffy in the Senate and President Clinton has threatened a veto to force major changes in a measure Democrats claim is an election-year scam.

``This plan is sound, it is in Medicare, it is an entitlement program and it is a guaranteed benefit,'' Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., a chief architect of the GOP plan, said Wednesday night as the measure cleared the House in a close, mostly party-line vote, 217-214.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said he had received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss, that ``they are going to take it up,'' and added that his door was open for negotiations with Democrats.

``We've always said we're willing to sit down with the president,'' Hastert said.

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William Roth, R-Del., said his panel was working behind closed doors on bipartisan Medicare legislation he would like to begin action on in July, after Congress returns from its Independence Day break.

Committee Democrat Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said he wasn't confident that the result would be a viable bill, however.

``Are we going to have a better chance of compromise after the July Fourth recess? I very much doubt it,'' Rockefeller said.

Clinton has threatened to veto any bill reaching his desk that looks like the House GOP measure. It would rely on a blend of private insurance companies and federal subsidies to spread coverage nationwide.

``The bottom line is their plan is designed to benefit the companies who make the prescription drugs, not the older Americans who need to take them,'' Clinton said.

Clinton and Democrats instead are advocating a costlier alternative: a uniform, government-run prescription drug benefit, offered to all 39 million elderly and disabled Medicare beneficiaries.

But majority Republicans, arguing that the $100 billion price tag over five years for the Democratic version exceeded the $40 billion allotted in their budget, refused to allow a House vote on it.

Polling indicates the issue of prescription drugs is a priority for Americans 65 and older, a group that accounted for more than one-quarter of voters in the 1998 elections and is regarded as a key swing group in the fall campaign.

Adding drug coverage to Medicare would be the biggest expansion of the program since its creation in 1965.

AARP, the nation's largest organization of older adults, is remaining aloof from either party on what is shaping up to be a highly competitive election-year issue.

``There's still a lot of details to be worked out on both plans, and it seems to us a little bit premature to be bringing this to a vote in such a rushed fashion,'' AARP public policy director John Rother said.

With elections to determine control of the House a little more than four months away, the House debate was thoroughly political.

Repeatedly, Democrats questioned the motivation of Republicans.

``It's a sham. It's a hoax. It's public relations. It's electioneering. It is not writing a plan that will help people,'' said Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who led his rank and file in delaying tactics, including a brief walkout, that added hours to Wednesday's debate.

Hastert, citing reports that Democrats already have tested campaign advertisements on the issue, said, ``My friends, put those commercials away. America is sick and tired of bickering. Americans just want us to create a product that will benefit them.''

Both the House Republican and Democratic proposals include provisions to help low-income senior citizens and those with particularly high annual drug expenses.

Fees charged by private insurers under the GOP plan could vary, but Republicans estimated a $35 to $40 monthly premium, a $250 annual deductible and a 50 percent co-payment up to $2,100 in covered costs. Catastrophic coverage would then kick in if a senior spent $6,000 out of pocket in one year.

Democrats said their plan would have a premium beginning at $25 a month, doubling as benefits are gradually increased over several years. There would be no deductible and a 50 percent co-payment up to $2,000 in covered costs, eventually rising to $5,000. Catastrophic coverage would kick in at $4,000 a year.

In the Senate, several bipartisan drug plans have been introduced but have garnered little discernible attention from either party's leadership.