Drug bill is called political placebo

GOP plan offers prescription aid

June 21, 2000|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a gambit designed to gain favor with a key voter group, Republican leaders are scrambling to win House approval for legislation they hope will answer the demand from older Americans for affordable prescription drugs.

The campaign formally begins with a committee vote today on a $40 billion program for Medicare beneficiaries designed to provide subsidized drug coverage through private insurers. Benefits would be aimed largely at the low-income elderly and those with high drug costs.

Critics and skeptics abound, even within Republican ranks. GOP vote-counters are struggling to overcome a chorus of complaints that the program would cost a lot but provide little help. Democrats call the proposal an election-year sham.

Speaker Dennis Hastert is determined to bring the measure to a full House vote before July 4 so that his fellow GOP lawmakers can boast of their achievement during campaign appearances over the weeklong recess.

"Access and security, that's what retirees without drug insurance are being offered in this plan - two huge things," said Rep. Richard M. Burr, a North Carolina Republican who is lead sponsor of the GOP initiative.

The proposal would provide subsidies to insurance companies to offer "drug only" policies that could vary widely in cost and benefits.

A sample plan outlined by the bill's sponsors would cost a beneficiary about $700 a year in premiums and deductibles. It would pay 50 percent of a beneficiary's prescription costs, up to $2,100 annually. No help would be provided for costs above that amount until a beneficiary's out-of-pocket drug expenses reached $6,000, when catastrophic insurance would cover further charges for the remainder of the year.

Despite months of work on developing the proposal, the bill's sponsors are having a hard time selling it their colleagues.

Moderate Republicans say the proposal is too stingy, that most middle-income elderly people would get no benefit. Conservative Republicans protest that the bill fails to address the problem of skyrocketing drug prices. Even if Medicare recipients benefit from lower drug prices negotiated by their private insurers, the cost burden would be shifted to other drug customers unable to make as good a deal, these critics say.

The insurance industry, which would be responsible for developing and selling the new drug-only plans, says the proposal wouldn't work.

"I've warned my colleagues: Be careful on this; you don't know what you're voting for," said Rep. Greg Ganske, an Iowa Republican who is a surgeon.

President Clinton, who earlier offered his prescription drug proposal, has said that the GOP bill fails to establish and guarantee a specific schedule of costs and benefits. He would set up such a program to be run by the Health Care Financing Administration, the Baltimore-based agency that manages Medicare.

Congressional Democrats contend GOP leaders don't expect the bill to become law. They say the Republicans' chief goal in offering the measure is to inoculate themselves against Democratic charges that they failed to address one of the hottest issues of this election year.

`Basically political'

"Their bill is basically political cover for Republicans who want to say they are doing something about prescription drug coverage, but at the end of the day it doesn't do anything," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.

Republican leaders are responding to advice from their pollsters that this bill is an election-year must. They have been warned that they could lose ground in their battle to retain control of the House if Republicans make no attempt to solve a problem of growing concern not only to the elderly, but also to voters ages 50 to 65 who fear what lies ahead for them in retirement.

About one-third of retirees have affordable drug coverage, mostly through their former employers. The remainder must depend on costly individual insurance that provides drug benefits or pay for drugs out of their own pockets.

"The American people have made this an issue," said Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "A lot of people believe there's a problem and Congress ought to do something about it."

A Gore campaign issue

Democrats have been sounding that theme for months in their congressional campaigns. Prescription drug coverage is also being featured in party ads promoting the White House bid of Vice President Al Gore.

Many Republicans, notably Rep. Bill Thomas of California, point man for the GOP on health care issues, have been reluctant to create a drug benefit for Medicare before undertaking more comprehensive reforms of the program considered too complex to be completed this year.

GOP pollster Glen Bolger has advised Republicans to be at least seen as trying to solve the problem, rather than concluding that the task is too big.

"It may be enough just to introduce a bill," said Rep. Mark E. Souder, an Indiana Republican. "But if we don't even have a bill, then we're open to charges that we didn't do anything."

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