Senate GOP Rejects Drug Plan

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans rejected a Democratic bid to create a Medicare prescription drug benefit Thursday night as political maneuvering intensified on an election-year issue affecting 39 million senior citizens.

The vote was 53-44, largely along party lines, and came at the end of a daylong Democratic offensive on Medicare, an issue that has long bedeviled the GOP at the polls.

Republicans accused Democrats of being more interested in scoring political points than in passing legislation.

``I say that this matter is too important, too important, too important to our senior citizens to rush it through as a political issue instead of working together,'' said Sen. William V. Roth, R-Del. Roth, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said members of the panel have been meeting for weeks in hopes of finding a bipartisan compromise.

Championing the Democratic proposal, which would mandate a uniform government-defined prescription drug benefit be offered under Medicare, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said: ``It is comprehensive. It is all inclusive. It is affordable and it will meet the needs of our senior citizens.''

Senate Democrats pressed for the vote one day after House Republicans had muscled their own, different plan through the House Ways and Means Committee and prepared for a floor vote as early as next week.

That proposal calls for private insurance companies, backed by hefty federal subsidies, to offer prescription drug coverage to Medicare recipients nationwide. The bill includes subsidies for low-income senior citizens, as well as those experiencing extremely high costs.

``Our plan will offer the best prices on the drugs (senior citizens) need, not some government bureaucracy plan that may not offer the drug the doctor prescribed,'' said Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania, one of several Republicans who touted the GOP handiwork during the day.

In the Senate, 42 Democrats and two Republicans, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, voted in favor of the proposal. There were 52 Republicans and Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana — a longtime advocate of bipartisan changes in Medicare — opposed. Not voting were Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, as well as Republican Ben Campbell of Colorado.

The White House claimed encouragement in defeat. ``We view it as an encouraging first step toward a bipartisan majority for a real drug benefit under Medicare,'' said White House official Joel Johnson. ``We look forward to working with the Congress to achieve the handful of votes necessary for passage.''

President Clinton struck a far different note earlier in the day, accusing House Repuplicans of making a ``false promise'' with their plan, and spearheading a furious Democratic response.

``It's a benefit for the companies who make the drugs, not the seniors who need them most,'' Clinton said of the GOP proposal, his sharply partisan rhetoric underscoring the potency of the issue in the run-up to the fall elections.

Clinton criticized the Republicans in remarks to reporters at the White House. Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, traveled to Congress to join House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt in the attack.

Finally, Senate Democrats used a parliamentary maneuver to bring their bill to the floor.

``I honestly don't believe that their proposal is a bona fide proposal so far as Medicare is concerned,'' said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

The Democratic alternative envisions a uniform government-defined prescription drug benefit to be offered to all Medicare recipients. its principal advocates include Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, whose state is home to millions of retirees, and Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia, who faces a strong re-election challenge this fall.

They estimated the premium under their plan at about $35 a month, with a deductible of $250 a year. After that, the government and the individual would evenly split the cost of the next $3,500 in drug expenses. The government's share would rise to 75 percent for annual expenses between $3,500 and $4,000, and the federal treasury would pick up the entire cost above that amount.

Their bill also provides subsidies for low-income senior citizens.

Graham estimated the cost at roughly $50 billion a year and $240 billion over 10 years, and stressed that once the deductible was paid, there was no gap in coverage.

By contrast, the House GOP bill costs an estimated $40 billion over five years.

Democrats also said their bill included provisions designed to foster competition among providers, and said they hoped it would help bring Republican support.