Senators vote down Medicare drug plan

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 12:00 a.m.
WASHINGTON - The Senate rejected a fourth Medicare prescription drug proposal Wednesday before heading home empty-handed to face older voters. Lawmakers instead settled for a massive influx of federal funds to bolster cash-strapped Medicaid programs serving 40 million poor people and a measure to speed lower-cost generic drugs to market.
The rejected last-minute, scaled-back Democratic plan to offer prescription benefits to poor seniors and those with huge pharmacy bills failed on a 50-49 vote. It needed 60 votes to bypass budget rules because of its $390 billion cost over 10 years.
Minutes later, lawmakers ended the prescription drug debate that had consumed more than two weeks of the Senate's time and instead passed the smaller Medicaid rescue and generic drug package on a 78-21 vote.
The Medicaid provisions - a response to heavy lobbying from governors - would give states $6 billion in additional federal matching funds and $3 billion in grants to help pay for state-run child care and other social service programs. Governors have said they can no longer afford Medicaid, with health care costs rising much faster than inflation and a limp economy forcing tight budgets.
Even the fate of what the Senate passed is unclear. The House has approved a Medicare bill but has not addressed the issues in the Senate bill.
The stalemate virtually assures the Medicare prescription drug issue will influence the November midterm elections, which typically attract disproportionately large numbers of elderly voters. Republicans and Democrats quickly began blaming each other.
"Republicans can try to run from this issue, but Democrats are not going to let them hide," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Labor and Education Committee. "If Republicans won't vote for a prescription drug program worthy of the name in September, the American people will vote for a Congress that will do the job in the elections in November."
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, accused Democrats and their leader, Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, of bringing only partisan proposals to the floor.
"The plans got worse each time. By putting partisan party politics ahead of the kind of leadership needed in the U.S. Senate, Senator Daschle left older Americans with nothing," Grassley said. Bush administration officials called Wednesday's vote disappointing.
"The president believes that where there is a will, there is a way, and he hopes the Senate will find a way to get prescription coverage to seniors," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
Senior groups were not buying the rhetoric. AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group for senior citizens, said the entire Senate had "broken its promise to older Americans."
The nation's seniors "will not accept finger pointing. They will not accept deadlock, and they will not accept the failure of senators to fulfill their promise," said AARP CEO William Novelli, who had called several senators in a last minute plea to pass a bill. "When the Senate returns from its August recess, it will be time to get this job done for America's seniors."
The legislation that ultimately passed Wednesday by the Senate would:
  • Send $9 billion to states that have complained about rising Medicaid costs amid shrinking state budgets.
  • Allow states to use Medicaid's buying power to force discounts from drug companies, not only for beneficiaries of the program but also for anyone else without insurance coverage. States like Michigan would be shielded from drug company lawsuits over "preferred drug lists" for Medicaid, where states require companies to provide discounts to appear on the list.
  • Limit brand-name drug companies to just one 30-month stay when generic drug companies apply to use brand-name patented formulas for a drug. It was written to address complaints that big drug companies have used repeated 30-month stays allowed under federal law to keep generic versions off the market.
  • Allow importers to buy U.S.-made drugs in Canada, where they are cheaper, and resell them here. The secretary of the Health and Human Services Department would have to certify the program was safe. Congress passed this provision in 2000, but HHS secretaries in the Clinton and Bush administrations have refused to certify them, citing fears that counterfeit pharmaceuticals could enter the market.
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