GOP Drives Medicare Prescription Drug Plan in House

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:20 PM EDT

( - Democrats and Republicans are locked in a partisan battle in the House over which side's prescription drug benefit plan will be added to Medicare -- and which party will control the House after this year's election.

House Republicans are poised to pass their $350 billion bill out of the Ways and Means committee on Tuesday in what many believe will be a party line vote. Alternative Democratic plans, by comparison, would cost taxpayers anywhere from $500 to $800 billion over the next decade.

"With House Republicans marking up their bill today, it's clear they are proposing a meaningless benefit that protects the pharmaceutical industry and ultimately leads to the privatization of Medicare," charged House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference featuring liberal seniors' and women's groups.

"A retired federal employee wrote me [that] her prescription drug costs are so high that she has 'very little to live on each month, so I had to move in with my son because I could not afford an apartment of my own,'" said Gephardt.

"We need to pass a real Medicare prescription drug benefit for all seniors so that no one has to endure such hardships after a lifetime of hard work and service to their families and to our country," he said.

Aside from the cost to taxpayers, the main difference between the Republican and Democratic bills is the role of government. The GOP plan would allow seniors to buy the prescription drug insurance they want in the free market, whereas the Democrat plans would put the Medicare program in charge of access.

Liberal groups criticized the GOP plan for allowing seniors to rely on the marketplace for drug purchases. The groups also contend that the GOP plan doesn't spend enough.

"There is no guarantee that insurance companies will offer drug coverage in specific communities, and the Republican proposal allows insurance companies to define the coverage they offer in different locations," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA.

"As a result, seniors will have no certainty about the premiums they need to pay, the cost-sharing they will bear, the drugs that are covered, and under what conditions they can obtain those drugs," warned Pollack.

The GOP plan, he said, also "provides very meager coverage and forces seniors to pay the lion's share of drug costs. "Too many seniors will remain unable to afford the medicines they need."

Spending on outpatient prescription drugs rose 17 percent in 2001 to $154.5 billion, according to the National Institute for Health Care Management, part of the reason why drug spending has nearly doubled since 1997.

More to follow.

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