Parties Collaborate on Medicare

Friday, May 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — A House Republican and a Senate Democrat said today they will work together for a bipartisan compromise plan to add prescription drug benefits to Medicare this year.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., a key architect of a House GOP proposal outlined earlier this spring, teamed up today with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who has been working on the issue with moderate Republicans in the Senate.

``This is not a rogue effort,'' said Thomas. ``Senator Wyden and I will consult fully and inform fully our respective leadership.''

The two said that preliminary discussions with party leaders and other lawmakers have uncovered common ground on the issue beneath recent political posturing.

For example, they said there is general agreement that prescription drug coverage supported by government dollars should be available to all senior citizens through a program run by the Health and Human Services Department, and that out-of-pocket costs should be limited. Also, Wyden and Thomas said there is growing consensus that drug companies should have to pay a ``return on investment fee'' to help support the new program when they profit from medicines developed through government-funded research.

The two lawmakers stressed that reaching compromise will require cajoling and diplomacy, however.

``The fact of the matter is that if prescription drug legislation does not get bipartisan, bicameral quickly, it is headed bye-bye for this session of Congress,'' said Wyden.

Wyden already has introduced Medicare drug legislation in the Senate, along with Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that is similar to what House Republicans proposed.

Both plans would have private insurance companies sell drug policies to retirees and provide government subsidies to help cover the costs.

House Republicans say their plan, still being developed, would offer direct subsidies to low-income senior citizens, as well as financial support to help insurance companies develop new drug policies that would result in more choices and lower prices for all senior citizens.

The Wyden-Snowe plan would offer a sliding scale of direct subsidies for drug insurance to all retirees, with at least 25 percent of everyone's premium paid by Medicare. Wyden's bill also calls for a new Medicare board to set standards for the private drug plans and oversee enrollment in them.

President Clinton and Democratic leaders in Congress have criticized the House GOP approach, saying it lacks guarantees that affordable, quality benefits would be available to all senior citizens.

Instead, Clinton and most Democrats want a drug benefit run by Medicare that any retiree could choose to add to the program's basic health coverage for an additional cost of about $25 a month.

Republicans have criticized that plan as overly bureaucratic and say it does not do enough to harness market forces that could lower prices while providing a wider choice of benefit packages.