Medicare Drug Bill 'Most Momentous' Decision Before Congress, Says Conferee

By Christine Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Putting the federal government in charge of drug prices and health care decisions will hurt the quality of health care for America's seniors, warns a lawmaker embroiled in final negotiations for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.

The Medicare bill is "probably the most momentous decision, other than things dealing with national security, that many of my colleagues and I will have had the opportunity to make within the next several years," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in a Monday speech at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank

Conference committee negotiators missed an Oct. 17 deadline imposed by GOP leaders but continue to debate options for adding a drug benefit to Medicare that covers drug costs for seniors yet remains affordable for taxpayers over the long run.

Lawmakers now hope to have a final bill passed and ready for President Bush to sign by the first week of November.

In the final days and weeks before Congress recesses for the year, Kyl is vigorously lobbying his colleagues against government-imposed limits on drug prices and other market decisions. Putting health care payment decisions in government control, rather than in the hands of seniors and the free market, will hurt quality of care, Kyl argues.

"There is no question that the quality of our health care will deteriorate over time if we continue to have the attitude that, even though it's important to us, we want somebody else to pay for it because that somebody will not care about it as much as you will," Kyl said.

"Their primary motivation is to buy it cheaply; your primary motivation is to get quality care," Kyl explained.

Kyl was also reacting to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll showing that Americans, by a 2-1 margin, favor "universal" health insurance (like Medicare already provides to seniors 65 years of age and older) over the current system based on employer-provided insurance. But that sentiment dwindled to just 4 in 10 if universal coverage meant limited choice of doctors or waiting lists for health care services.

The Congressional Budget Office has projected the 10-year cost for a House-passed Medicare drug plan at $425 billion, compared to $432 billion for the Senate's.

Controversial cost-containment measures under discussion include means testing (requiring seniors making $75,000 to $100,000 and up to bear more of Medicare's entire "Part B" supplemental insurance) and limits on what Medicare will reimburse drug companies for drug costs.

It's unclear whether either idea would win sufficient approval in the House or the Senate.

Prominent Democrats, who have complained about being shut out of Medicare negotiations, remain at intra-party odds over means testing, with Calif. Democrat Dianne Feinstein in favor of it and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) vehemently opposed. Under current law, all beneficiaries who opt for Medicare Part B pay just 25 percent of its cost ($58.20 a month in 2003).

And many Republicans remain opposed to government limits on drug company prices.

Kyl indicated that Republican leaders wouldn't okay a bill without first securing enough support to survive floor votes.

Other unresolved matters include re-importation of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada, extra subsidies for health care in rural areas and how to give employers incentives to continue drug coverage for seniors once a Medicare benefit is established.

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