Senate rejects drug coverage for elderly under Medicare

Chance of benefit passing this year all but wiped out

August 01, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected a plan yesterday to provide prescription drug coverage to seniors in Medicare, all but eliminating the chance that Congress will approve such a benefit in this election year.

But the senators did back a bill intended to control the exploding costs of prescription medicines. They voted 78-21 for a measure to speed the entry of generic drugs into the market.

Some version of the generic-drug bill, sponsored by Sens. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, is thought to have a chance of becoming law this year.

But failure of the drug coverage plan - the fourth attempt the Senate has made this summer to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare - was a sharp setback for its advocates.

Forty-nine senators - 45 of them Democrats, including Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland - voted for the drug-coverage bill; 50 opposed it. Sixty votes in favor would have been needed under the budget rules of the Senate.

"Our seniors back home don't understand all this haggling back and forth," said Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat. "All they see is that the Senate has now defeated four prescription drug plans."

For the past three weeks, Republicans and Democrats have jockeyed for advantage in the debate over adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare - an issue seen as a galvanizing topic in the fall elections.

Lawmakers recognize that a drug benefit is a top priority of older Americans, who vote in disproportionately high numbers. Medicare insures 40 million elderly or disabled people.

"Senators who really believe that they are going to go home and blame it on the other guys, I think they're going to get a big surprise," said Chris Hansen of the AARP, the nation's largest seniors' group and a supporter of the plan that failed yesterday. "It makes them look inept."

Key figures in both parties vowed to keep up the pressure to pass a Medicare prescription drug coverage bill.

"We will continue to fight," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "We will be back next month, next year and the year after and as long as it takes until every senior citizen has the comprehensive benefit they deserve."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, predicted that senators will hear from disillusioned seniors over their August recess, to begin after this week.

"We've still got time to get this plan adopted and to get it adopted this year," he said.

But Grassley and other Republicans criticized the latest Democratic plan, saying it was too costly and would not cover enough people.

The Bush administration urged the Senate to resurrect the effort once it returns after Labor Day.

"Meaningful prescription drug coverage for seniors is a critically important issue that the Senate cannot fail to address," said Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services.

The defeat dashed the hopes of Democratic leaders who had scrambled to cut a deal on a drug benefit - a less generous plan than the one they originally wanted - so as not to be blamed for the failure of the Democratic-led Senate to act.

In June, the Republican-led House passed a 10-year, $350 billion bill to provide prescription drug coverage to Medicare beneficiaries. That version would depend heavily on private insurers to provide the benefit; the Democratic approach would rely primarily on the government.

Democratic senators who are facing tough re-election races have pleaded with their leaders to forge a deal they could vote for and the Senate could pass.

After the vote, Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, complained that his party was being blamed even though the House plan, he said, was inadequate, given its reliance on the private sector and what Democrats say are gaps in its coverage.

"The pollsters told the Republicans: `Pass anything. Nobody's going to look, and you can say we did it,'" Daschle said. "Well, that's exactly what happened. It isn't, `Which is the better plan?' It's `The Republicans have a plan; where's yours?'"

The bill that failed was, in many ways, a last-ditch effort to answer that criticism. Co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, and Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican, the $390 billion, 10-year plan would have created a drug benefit only for the poorest and sickest Medicare patients.

It would have provided drug coverage to seniors with incomes of $17,720 for individuals or $23,880 for couples, and to those who spent more than $3,300 for prescriptions.

The plan had been scaled back drastically from a $594 billion proposal to cover all seniors that Democrats had pushed earlier. The latest plan was viewed by Democrats and seniors' groups as the best the Senate could do this year to provide at least some prescription drug coverage to older Americans in this election year.

"It's obviously not as good as what we had been talking about, but it is important we get [support] for something constructive to get prescription drugs for our seniors this year," said Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota, seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats in November.

His Republican opponent, Rep. John Thune, backed the House-passed bill. But Johnson said he was not concerned about going home without a Senate-passed drug benefit.

"I contrast the Medicare coverage that I voted for to the House plan that my opponent supports," Johnson said.

Most Democrats argue that few of the private insurers the House bill depends on would serve seniors in rural areas.

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