Springfield State Journal Register

June 28, 2003

Durbin, Fitzgerald vote for senior drug benefit


WASHINGTON - For the past two weeks, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., had criticized the bipartisan Medicare prescription drug bill repeatedly as it was debated on the Senate floor.

He offered two of the many amendments proposed by Democrats to expand the benefits it proposed. Both were defeated.

Yet early Friday when the Senate cast the final vote, Durbin voted in favor of the politically popular bill despite what he said were "serious misgivings."

The bill passed the Senate, 76-21, with Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., also voting in favor.

The House also passed its version early Friday by a one-vote margin, 216-215, after just one evening of debate. Illinois House members voted along party lines as expected, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats opposing it.

The differences between the House and Senate versions still must be worked out and the compromise version brought again to both chambers before the bill can be sent to the White House to be signed into law by President Bush. That won't be an easy task.

While the Senate bill makes some important and positive changes, Durbin said, "unfortunately this program does not address many of the underlying problems facing seniors today."

"It places too much reliance on HMOs and other managed-care providers. It does not guarantee the low premiums that have been promised. And it does almost nothing to control the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs," Durbin said. "The large pharmaceutical companies made no concessions to give American families the discounts they offer Canadian families today."

However, Durbin noted some positive aspects of the bill.

"It is a commitment by the federal government for the first time to provide a basic level of drug coverage for seniors," he said. In addition, he said, "it provides catastrophic coverage when out-of-pocket expenses for medicines reach $3,700; it provides a more equalized payment plan for hard-hit rural hospitals, and it eliminates the tactics some drug companies have used in the past to keep lower-cost generic drugs off the market and away from consumers."

Fitzgerald praised the measure, saying lawmakers for years have promised a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

"Today we put seniors before partisanship and made good on that promise," Fitzgerald said.

In fact, partisanship played a prominent role in the two-week debate. Democrats including Durbin offered a myriad of amendments that they hoped would portray them as the true protectors of seniors.

Republicans countered with their own amendments to provide political cover when lawmakers go home to face their constituents.

When Durbin offered his amendment to increase benefits for seniors with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's, Republicans opposed it primarily because of its cost. But no lawmaker wants to go on record voting against cancer coverage.

So, Republicans offered an amendment that sounded similar, yet changed little in the bill. Durbin's bill failed, but the GOP provision passed.

"With all due respect to my colleagues, the amendment we just passed did nothing," Durbin said on the Senate floor after the vote.