Bill for talks on drugs OK'd

House measure would force U.S. to negotiate prices for Medicare

January 13, 2007|By Johanna Neuman | Johanna Neuman,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Defying a presidential veto threat, the House has approved a bill to require federal officials to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices for the 23 million people who have Medicare's prescription drug coverage.

Although the bill is unlikely to become law, it will help shape a debate that could result in a more limited measure to allow some dickering between the government and the pharmaceutical industry over drug costs.

Supporters of such efforts argue that the vast scale of the Medicare program would result in more significant discounts for prescriptions than private insurers are able to obtain.

At the least, the House bill signals a shift in Washington from President Bush's view that private enterprise and individual citizens should play the most prominent role in the decisions that determine health care costs.

The legislation passed yesterday on a 255-170 vote, with 24 Republicans joining 231 Democrats in backing it. All those voting against it were Republicans.

The bill would repeal a ban on letting the government negotiate with manufacturers for lower prices - a provision that was part of the GOP-sponsored 2003 measure that created the prescription drug program.

Under the House bill, the secretary of the Health and Human Services Department would be empowered to seek the best prices for the prescription drugs used by Medicare participants.

House Democratic leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland hailed the bill as "a very important first step in making prescription drugs more affordable."

The legislation - one of the measures that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that Democrats would enact within the first 100 working hours after taking control of the House - was strongly opposed by pharmaceutical companies.

Several bought full-page ads in newspapers, urging Congress not to tinker with the drug benefit.

"Give it a chance," read the ad. "It's working."

The White House has sided with the industry's argument, and aides have said that Bush would veto the bill if it reached his desk.

The bill's chances in the Senate appear slim.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has said he would not embrace the House proposal; instead, he favors a bill that would allow - rather than ordering - the administration to haggle with pharmaceutical companies over drug prices.

And the committee's ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, warned that the House bill could "block access to drugs that a senior might need, make it harder to get your medicine at the local pharmacy, and result in higher drug prices for younger people."

But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican, made clear that she plans to push for some version of the House bill: "Now is the time for the Senate to harness the buying power of millions of seniors to give them a better value for their health care dollar."

Although the program's rollout last year had problems, the benefit has proved popular among those seniors.

But polls also show an overwhelming majority of beneficiaries support having Medicare negotiate prices with the drug industry.

Johanna Neuman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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