Langevin: Drug Vote Terrible Blow to Seniors

Rep. Jim Langevin woke up a little groggier than usual Friday morning — and a little less happy.

It was nearly 3:30 a.m. when Langevin, D-R.I., emerged from the House floor with a cadre of displeased Democrats. Their Republican colleagues, on the other hand, were slapping backs over their successful passage of the GOP prescription drug plan.

The House approved on a partisan 221 to 208 vote a bill that is supposed to direct the federal government to help pay for prescription drugs for the nation's 40 million seniors. Langevin said it does nothing of the sort.

"We would have created the drug benefit as part of Medicare when all they're doing is subsidizing the insurance companies to supply the benefit," Langevin told "We were not allowed to offer a Democratic substitute, we were not given that opportunity."

Under the GOP's $320 million plan, seniors will pay $33 a month and an annual deductible of $250. Medicare will pay 80 percent of prescription drug costs from $251 to $1,000 a year, and then 50 percent of costs from $1,001 to $2,000. Beneficiaries will then pay their own expenses up to $3,700, at which time Medicare will pay for everything above that.

The "gap" in coverage, coupled with the fact that the plan leaves the program in the hands of the private sector and with no uniform guarantees of coverage, was the crux of Democrats' argument against it. They would have preferred an $800 million to $1 billion plan, which would have required a $25-a-month premium, a $100 deductible and a percentage of all costs for prescriptions.

"For seniors who really need the drug benefit, and are likely on a fixed income, they're not going to be able to afford this," said Langevin, who said a study of Rhode Island seniors' costs showed they pay 78 percent more than seniors in other countries.

"There's something drastically wrong here," he said.

For Langevin, 37, who counts health care as one of the battles he came to Washington in 2000 to win, it's a case of "show me the money." Private insurers, he said, are working off profit motive, not "the goodness of their own hearts."

And Langevin knows personally something about the issue. Paralyzed at 16 in an accidental shooting while training to be a police cadet in the Boy Scout Explorer program, the wheelchair-bound Langevin has pushed health care and disability rights first as a college-aged state representative, and then while completing a masters degree at Harvard while in office. He later became Rhode Island's secretary of state.

Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman Bill Lynch said Langevin "moved up from the ranks" and has never lost touch with his constituency.

"[He is] a Democrat, but an independent thinker, someone who on occasion was willing to swim against the tide if he thought that was the right thing to do," said Lynch.

Less liberal than his Democratic counterpart, Rhode Island Rep. Patrick Kennedy, Langevin — who is pro-life — has kept a fairly low profile. Still, he has fought doggedly for election reform and the rights of the disabled, and is willing to give credit where credit is due. 

As a beneficiary of the 1990 Americans with Disability Act, Langevin said he is pleased that President Bush passed the New Freedom Initiative, which pushes for greater access to transportation, housing and independent living for the disabled.

He also credits the president with his handling of the war on terrorism. But, he added, the Democratic Party can still do a better job of handling domestic policy.

And with nine-to-one odds of being elected again in a district that is 26 percent Democratic, 8 percent Republican and the rest left-leaning Independent, Langevin will likely continue as a dogged pursuer of domestic priorities.

But Langevin's seemingly easy campaign does have opposition. After the Sept. 10 GOP primary, Langevin will face either John O. Matson, a carpenter who has the state GOP's endorsement, or Rodney Driver, who garnered 21 percent running as an Independent against Langevin in the 2000 race, which Langevin won with 62 percent.

Both Matson and Driver hold no illusions about their chances, but they're still not convinced that Langevin is running for "the little guy" and apart from the Democratic machine.

"My real problem with Langevin, and many others in Washington, is he just follows the leader," said Driver, who calls himself a pro-human rights fiscal conservative. "They pass bills with no real knowledge of what's really going on."

Matson, who said he is fighting for health care and veterans' benefits, said Congress has taken too long to address the needs of working people and seniors.

Langevin agrees, and wants to keep the pressure up on Republicans for a better plan. He thinks that may happen in a House-Senate conference once the Democratic-led Senate votes on a drug plan.

"I think the Democrats have a better handle on domestic problems right now and I think that's what Americans care about. We're confident that we can deliver. We're focusing on the issues at hand."