Canton Repository

June 27, 2003

Area lawmakers remain split on Rx drug benefit

By PAUL M. KRAWZAK
Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — Area lawmakers split along party lines Thursday as Congress moved toward creating a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

Republican Reps. Ralph Regula and Bob Ney supported the bill, while encouraging private health plans to compete for the business.

Democratic Reps. Sherrod Brown, Ted Strickland and Tim Ryan opposed the legislation, which they said would abandon the 38-year-old federal commitment to health insurance for seniors. They also criticized gaps in the prescription coverage.

“I think it’s a good beginning,” Regula of Bethlehem Township said. “This problem of prescription drugs is something we need to address. ... The cost has been a real burden for some people, and I think this makes the system more fair.”

Brown of Lorain charged that the plan would force seniors out of traditional Medicare and into inferior health-maintenance organizations and cause employers to drop their prescription coverage for employees.

“Some 38 years ago, this nation made a commitment to ensure our nation’s retirees access the health care they need,” he said. “The Republicans’ bill forsakes that commitment.”

Republicans said the bill would encourage competition from private health plans to keep down the costs of the program into the future. Democrats contended that the intent was to push Medicare toward privatization.

Ney of St. Clairsville scoffed at those claims.

With the political power that seniors have, “there is no way” that Medicare will be privatized, he said.

Strickland of Lucasville worried that means-testing provisions in the GOP bill would violate the privacy of seniors. The plan would use seniors’ incomes to determine their benefit levels under the drug plan.

“The IRS will have to cooperate and they’ll have to provide (income) information to HHS (the Department of Health and Human Services) or to these insurance companies ... that are providing coverage,” he said. “I think that’s a huge, huge issue.”

Ney wasn’t worried.

“I can give you tons of examples where we already do that,” he said, noting that payments for welfare and Social Security disability require income verification. “I don’t see what’s so different about this.”

Ney added that if there were “concerns of abuse (of private information) within the drug industry ... then we need to look at ways” to prevent it.

Regula said the means-testing was necessary to keep the plan affordable.

The GOP plan would cost an estimated $400 billion over 10 years, while a more generous Democratic substitute had a price tag of about $900 billion.

Regula singled out free physical examinations and cholesterol screening offered in the GOP version, which he said “makes a lot of sense.”

Ryan of Warren preferred the Democratic plan, which he said would provide superior benefits and allow the government to negotiate lower drug prices.

Ryan said a provision in the GOP bill that prohibits the secretary of health and human services from negotiating lower drug prices “is the most illustrative component of the whole thing ... These guys (Republicans) are in bed with the pharmaceutical companies.”

Sen. George Voinovich, R-Columbus, backed a differing version in the Senate, which he said “will allow seniors to choose a benefits package that best fits their needs and gives them the same types of choices enjoyed by members of Congress and other federal employees.” Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Cedarville, also supported that plan.

Differences between House and Senate versions of the plan would have to be resolved by congressional negotiators and sent back to both chambers for approval.

In the House, Democrats complained there should have been more time to review the GOP plan, which was not released in its final form until Wednesday night.

“It’s rather pathetic that this is the most important bill we will deal with this Congress probably, maybe for several congresses, and most of us will be voting for it not having much idea of what’s in it,” Strickland said earlier Thursday.

Some Democrats predicted that once seniors find out what’s in the plan, they will revolt against it and it eventually may be scrapped.

“It doesn’t take effect for two years, and I think seniors start doing the math,” Brown said.