Union Tribune

November 22, 2003

Local lawmakers to vote by party on drug bill

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — As the House moved toward action on a prescription drug benefit for seniors late Friday night, the area’s Republican lawmakers defended the plan as a major step forward while Democrats predicted it would be a big disappointment.

Reps. Ralph Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, and Bob Ney, R-St. Clairsville, planned to vote for the House-Senate compromise, which would provide partial drug coverage for 40 million Medicare recipients, including 1.7 million in Ohio.

Reps. Sherrod Brown, D-Lorain, Ted Strickland, D-Lucasville, and Tim Ryan, D-Warren, vowed to oppose it as they did an earlier version that passed the House by just one vote on June 27.

An extremely close voted was expected.

“While this may not be a perfect bill, we cannot miss this unique opportunity to provide seniors, especially those with low incomes, with assistance in paying for their prescription drugs,” Regula said.

The benefit would cost an estimated $400 billion for the first 10 years. It would mark the largest expansion of social spending since Medicare, a federal health insurance program for seniors, was created in 1965.

Ney said seniors “have waited far too long for vital health care needs such as access to affordable prescription drugs, preventive care measures and chronic care management,” which the bill would provide starting in 2007, he said.

The majority of Democrats opposed the plan, which was drafted largely by Republicans. In the Senate, some moderate Democrats such as Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana helped shape the bill.

Brown blasted the benefit, which he said “jeopardizes employer-sponsored retiree benefits for the 13 million seniors who have these benefits, leaves such huge gaps in coverage that the average senior will run out of drug benefits by August each year, and will force retirees throughout the country to either pay significantly more for the coverage they have now or join an HMO.”

Strickland warned the plan is designed to destroy Medicare.

“The bill will create a huge demonstration program that will potentially force millions of seniors into a voucher program for private insurance,” he said. Medicare, he added, “will then be forced to compete with these plans that are subsidized at taxpayer expense and that can design their benefits to cherry-pick the healthiest seniors.”

Democrats faulted the plan for barring the import of prescriptions from Canada, where drugs are cheaper. Another failure of the measure is that it prohibits the federal government from negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceuticals — a practice that has saved money at the Veterans Administration, they said.

The plan proposes to hold down costs by allowing private insurers to compete in offering the drug benefit, which would be overseen by the federal government.

On average, beneficiaries would pay a $35 monthly premium, and they would have a $250 yearly deductible before coverage would kick in.

The benefit would cover 75 percent of prescription cost up to $2,250 a year. Beneficiaries would be responsible for all remaining drug expenses until they had spent $3,600 out of pocket. The plan then would cover 95 percent of additional costs.

Ney expressed approval for increased aid for rural health care providers in the plan.

Regula said it promotes “preventive medicine, an approach I have long advocated, by covering services such as physicals, vaccinations and cancer screenings,” which he said will help people live longer.

The Senate could consider the bill as early as today.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but a very good one and it brings relief that will make a big difference to a lot of Ohio seniors,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who was enthusiastic about voting for it.

Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, has not said how he will vote but there are no indications he would oppose the bill. He and Voinovich both supported an earlier version.