Prescription Drug Promise Closer to Reality

Every election year seems to bring the same promises, but it appears that at least one of them may actually become reality this time around. Lawmakers are closer than ever to fulfilling a longstanding pledge to provide an affordable prescription drug plan to the nation’s seniors.

"From the discussions that I have had with other members of Congress and the president, I feel confident that we can get something done on prescription drugs this year," said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

While both parties made grand promises to overhaul Social Security and update Medicare, many of the proposals fell by the wayside even before Sept. 11 captured the attention of lawmakers and the public alike.

But aware that some campaign promises must be kept, Republicans and Democrats have come to an agreement that the best chance for a deal is on a prescription drug plan that will help seniors pay for the pills and potions that they depend on to keep them healthy.

"I don’t think you can underestimate the importance of a prescription drug plan; it is the most important thing we can do this year," said a Democratic congressional aide who did not want to be named.

"Everybody wants to see a benefit passed this year," she added.

Though differences still remain, lawmakers promise to hammer them out this summer before the election season kicks into high gear. One congressional source said the House is hoping to send a bill to the Senate by July 4.

As of this week, about a dozen Senate bills offered by Senate Democrats are under development. Two House committees are hammering out versions of a plan constructed by the Republican leadership.

According to Capitol Hill sources, bills in both chambers are expected to be introduced within the next few weeks.

While details are still in flux, sources say the bill expected to get a full House vote will look somewhat similar to a proposal announced by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., on May 2. Under that plan, which would cost up to $350 billion over the next 10 years and be administered by private insurers, beneficiaries would pay a $250 deductible and premiums up to $40 per month for drug coverage.

Medicare would then pay 70 percent or 75 percent of drug costs up to $1,000, and 50 percent on costs from $1,000 to $2,250. Afterward, federal payments would stop and Medicare would not kick in again until the patient spends $5,000 on drug expenses.

Both the House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Ways and Means Committee are working on details of a bill based on Hastert's outline. The Ways and Means plan includes a $9.2 billion increase in payments to hospitals over the next decade. Sources also say that House negotiators are close to an agreement that would roll back the cuts to home health care funding passed in 1997.

Senate Democrats are already on the offensive, though, saying Hastert's plan will leave a "gap" in Medicare coverage that they refuse to allow.

"The Republican plan simply isn’t good enough," said Sen. Jean Carnahan, D-Mo., who, like other candidates, has been using the prescription drug issue to drum up support for her re-election campaign.

"Seniors may be better off purchasing a bus ticket to Canada than relying on this Republican proposal," complained Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who also has a drug plan in the works.

Democrats want a plan to be directly administered by Medicare, not private companies. They also want more money allotted for the benefit.

On the same day as Hastert's announcement, Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Zell Miller, D-Ga., who plan to introduce a bill "very soon" according to Senate sources, said their plan would cost up to $500 billion through 2010.

Beneficiaries would pay premiums of $25 a month and have no deductible. Medicare would pay 50 percent of costs up to $4,000 and full costs beyond that.

With such stark differences in Republican and Democratic plans, sources admit the road to final passage by both the House and Senate won’t be easy. It may help, however, that President Bush is giving his full backing for swift passage of a prescription drug benefit, offering to fulfill the promise of Medicare as well as his own campaign.

"Seniors often pay the highest process for drugs out of their own pockets," he said during his weekly radio address two weeks ago. "We need to do more to fulfill Medicare’s promise."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.