With an eye toward sparking debate on the rising cost of prescription drugs, Democratic senators pushed through committee Thursday a bill expanding opportunities to get lower-cost generic drugs into the marketplace.
Five Republicans -- Sens. Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, John Warner of Virginia, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- joined Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in approving the bill by a 16-5 vote.
Democrats plan to use the bill to focus a debate next week on the rising costs of prescription drugs. They hope to attach to the bill a Medicare prescription drug benefit for senior citizens.
The tactic is planned because Democratic leaders have yet to reach a compromise between two competing Medicare prescription drug plans.
"Today's action puts us one step closer to the goal of lowering the cost of prescription drugs for all Americans," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee chairman. "Every day we delay means that more and more patients across the country are paying exorbitant prices for their drugs because of patent abuses that are keeping cheaper generic drugs off the market."
The bill would amend a 1984 law designed to speed generic drugs to the market. Lawmakers and consumer advocates have long contended that drug companies have abused patent laws to prevent consumers from getting lower-cost generics.
The bill attempts to stop abuses of an automatic 30-month delay that the maker of a brand-name drug gets when it files suit to stop a generic from entering the market. Many companies have filed repeated suits to win continuous delays, lawmakers complained.
Under the committee's bill, a brand-name drug maker would be limited to one 30-month stay per generic application.
Senators continued work Thursday to hammer out differences between Medicare prescription drug proposals.
Under a draft of a proposal whose supporters include Sens. James Jeffords, I-Vt., Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and John Breaux, D-La., monthly premiums likely would be under $30, with a $250 annual deductible. After that, the beneficiary would pay up to 50 percent of costs until total drug spending reached $2,000. Once beneficiaries had paid $3,700 out of pocket in any year, insurance would pay at least 90 percent of all additional prescriptions.
A separate proposal offered by Democratic Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia -- which would cost $500 billion over 10 years -- would require that beneficiaries pay a $25 monthly premium, no deductible and a $10 co-payment on generic drugs or a $40 co-payment on brand-name drugs. The plan includes a $4,000 cap on out-of-pocket expenditures.
The House two weeks ago passed a bill that would spend $320 billion over 10 years on a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. Seniors would pay monthly premiums of about $33 and a yearly deductible of roughly $250. The government would pay 80 percent of the next $1,000 of drug costs and 50 percent of the subsequent $1,000. Beneficiaries would have to pick up the tab beyond that, although the bill has a $3,700 cap on out-of-pocket expenses.