Lower Prescription Drug Prices Tops Democrats' Health Care Agenda

Universal health care is a top proposal being talked up by at least one Democratic senator, who says he will introduce a bill next year when his party takes control of Congress to help out the 46 million Americans without health care insurance.

"It is time to fix health care in America," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said Wednesday. "Employer-based coverage is melting away like a popsicle in the summer heat."

Wyden's plan, called The Healthy Americans Act, would guarantee health care coverage for all Americans equal to benefits received by congressional lawmakers and would cover everyone except those on Medicare or in the military. It would require employers to "cash out" current coverage plans and transfer those savings to salary increases over a two-year transition period. Workers would then buy insurance coverage from private plans and employers would share up to 25 percent of the average premium.

Editor's Note: This is the third in a multi-part series on legislative and ethics priorities for Democrats when they take over the congressional majority in January 2007.

"The Healthy Americans Act provides a guarantee: health coverage for every American that is at least as good as members of Congress receive and can never be taken away," Wyden said.

Joe Hansen, president of the 1.3 million member United Food and Commercial Workers Union, praised Wyden for his leadership and commitment to reform, but said the bill could end up raising prices for working families.

"Working middle class families could have a greater financial burden under the proposed reform than they do under the current system. Affordability is the central issue for working families who are already struggling just to make ends meet," Hansen said.

Wyden's is not the only health care proposal Democrats are offering up when they take over Congress next month. Other priorities include reauthorizing the Children’s Health Care Program, enabling the government to negotiate Medicare prescription drug prices, which is not permitted in the 2003 law, and seeking viable solutions to provide health care for millions of uninsured Americans, according to Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi.

Democrats plan to introduce legislation on those issues on the first day of the 110th Congress and pass it within the first 100 legislative hours, reads the Democrats' "A New Direction for America" agenda.

“We have to find a way for lower rates,” said Luis Miranda, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, who adds that Democrats want to ease the burden on corporations paying for their employees' health care coverage. “It’s about dealing with it and finding ways to actually make it more accessible for every American.”

On the Senate side, incoming Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., also plans to hold hearings early in the new session to review the Medicare prescription drug program, which would include increasing negotiating power with drug companies, and funding shortfalls for CHIP, a Baucus aide told FOXNews.com.

Baucus and Republican counterpart Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, brokered a deal before Congress adjourned to cover CHIP's funding shortfalls until the middle of next year, the aide said.

As for working with Republicans, "Senator Baucus firmly believes that you don't get a lot done on Capitol Hill unless you work together," the aide said.

But groups deeply involved in seeing new health care policies say they are skeptical that big reforms will take place since lawmakers are already getting distracted by the 2008 presidential election.

“I don’t think you are going to see quite as many huge things,” said David Sloane, senior managing director of government relations and advocacy for AARP.

Sloane added that he hoped that Democrats will "reach out" to Republicans to "include them much more in the process so they can start to repair some of the difficulties. ... The Congress has gotten to the state where they have a great deal of difficulty on agreeing much of anything."

Sloane said the AARP supports giving the Health and Human Services secretary power to negotiate lower drug prices and he hopes this Congress will get it done.

“We pay higher prices than any other country in the world for pharmaceuticals,” Sloane said. “There’s going to be a good deal of opposition from the administration. The battle probably will occur in the Senate where it will require more centrist action to get things through.

“I don’t think it’s something that should be resisted like the plague,” he said.

Another issue likely to come up is the reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which funds grants to states to provide assistance to families that earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford private coverage.

CHIP sailed through the Senate nearly 10 years ago with bipartisan support, but the program needs to be funded again, forcing a new debate when it comes up for reauthorization. President Bush’s budget calls for $5 billion per year for CHIP but Democrats, like Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., propose an additional $12 billion over the next five years.

“If we fail to provide that funding, the consequences will be disastrous,” Kennedy, the new chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, told a Senate committee in July.

Ron Pollack, executive director for Families USA, a nonprofit group that promotes high-quality and affordable health care for Americans, said he believes that expanding coverage for children and additional funding for the program has support from both sides of the aisle.

The reauthorization bill is an “opportunity to complete the job” to provide coverage for 9 million uninsured children, he said. “There’s been a process of strange bedfellows getting together on this."