WASHINGTON – Interest groups for the elderly, angry over the Senate's failure to approve a Medicare drug benefit, plan to give lawmakers an earful when they're home in August.
The senators leave this week for summer recess after spending nearly three weeks of debate on prescription drugs. Four plans were rejected by the Senate, the latest of which failed Wednesday in a 50-49 vote. That Democrat-backed plan, which would have helped poor seniors and those with huge pharmacy bills, needed 60 votes to bypass budget rules because of its $390 billion cost over 10 years.
Senators did pass, by a 78-21 vote, a smaller bill that would speed lower-cost generic drugs to market, among other things. But it was far from the benefit the elderly wanted.
"We're going to be working state fairs, community meetings, a number of events," said William Novelli, chief executive officer of AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for older Americans. "I think they're going to get an earful when they get home. I think the message is going to be, 'How could you do this? Go back and get it done. There's no recess from high drug prices.'
"Seniors have been following this thing and they're disappointed," Novelli said.
Ed Coyle, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans, said the nation's elderly are "angry and disgusted that their elected representatives have abandoned them."
"Members of Congress have prescription drug coverage and they should have done more for older Americans who don't," Coyle said. "The Senate let them down."
The House passed a $320 billion Medicare plan in June, but Democrats vigorously opposed it because, like the plans offered by Senate Republicans, it relies on private insurers to administer the benefit rather than the government.
Senate Republicans and Democrats blamed each other for the inaction.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, accused Democrats and their leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, of bringing only partisan proposals to the floor.
"The plans got worse each time. By putting partisan party politics ahead of the kind of leadership needed in the U.S. Senate, Sen. Daschle left older Americans with nothing," Grassley said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "Republicans can try to run from this issue, but Democrats are not going to let them hide.
"If Republicans won't vote for a prescription drug program worthy of the name in September, the American people will vote for a Congress that will do the job in the elections in November," said Kennedy, chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Bush administration officials called Wednesday's Medicare vote disappointing. "Meaningful prescription drug coverage for seniors is a critically important issue that the Senate cannot fail to address," said Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
The fate of the generic drug bill that did pass Wednesday was also unclear, as the House has yet to act on its provisions. That measure would:
--Send $9 billion to states that have complained about rising Medicaid costs amid shrinking state budgets.
--Allow states to use Medicaid's buying power to force discounts from drug companies, not only for beneficiaries of the program but for anyone without insurance coverage. States like Michigan would be shielded from drug company lawsuits over "preferred drug lists" for Medicaid, where states require companies to provide discounts to appear on the list.
--Prevent manufacturers of brand-name drugs from using multiple 30-month stays when patents expire to prevent generic versions from reaching the market. A brand-name drug's maker would be allowed only one 30-month stay.
--Allow importers to buy U.S.-made drugs in Canada, where they are cheaper, and resell them here. The secretary of health and human services would have to certify the program was safe. Congress passed this provision in 2000, but HHS secretaries in the Clinton and Bush administrations have refused to certify them, citing fears that counterfeit pharmaceuticals could enter the market.