2002-08-07 / Seniors

Schumer’s Generic Drug Bill Is Seniors’ Only Hope

Any chance of seniors getting prescription drug benefits from the nation’s lawmakers this year was shot down last week when a Democratic compromise plan was defeated in the United States Senate.

The same day, the Senate approved Senator Charles Schumer’s bill, which will make it easier to bring more, lower-cost generic drugs to consumers. Democrats, 49 of whom voted for this bill, were joined by 28 Republicans and one independent to push this through. It now goes to the House where its future is uncertain. For one thing, there won’t be much time between September and Election Day in November for the House to take up the bill since all Congressmembers must run for re-election in November, and some will also have to deal with a primary in early September, too.

The bottom line is, the nation’s seniors will get no help at all from Congress this year in lowering drug bills, which are astronomical for some and a burden for mostly all.

Who’s to blame? Democrats in both houses offered the most generous coverage under Medicare; Republicans said it would cost too much money, which in a sense is true, but the money isn’t there because President George W. Bush’s huge tax cutting program returned many trillions of dollars to taxpayers, most of which went to high-income people. The tax cut wiped out the surplus President Bill Clinton left behind and the federal government again has a huge deficit to contend with. Of course, there is no easy way to pay for a Medicare drug coverage program for all the seniors in the country. So most of them will have to continue to struggle to cover their drug purchases.

Republicans in the House passed a prescription drug plan which would be administered by private insurance companies, similar to the HMOs running some Medicare programs. It saved seniors less than the Democratic plan would have. The GOP plan never came up for a vote in the Senate and there are no plans at present for the Senate ever to consider it.

While both parties must share the blame for the way seniors have been treated on this issue, it appears Republicans were not willing to extend themselves as far as were Democrats to help seniors. A good example of this is the way Senators voted on the Democrats’ compromise bill last Wednesday.

Senate Dems originally put in a bill to cover all 40 million Medicare beneficiaries under a $594 billion, 10-year plan. When that was voted down, the Democrats came up will a plan costing $390 billion over 10 years. Instead of covering every senior on Medicare, the second proposal would cover those having drug costs of more than $3,300 a year on incomes less than $17,720 a year for an individual or $23,880 for a couple. In short, it would have covered only low-income seniors and those with the highest medical costs.

In the voting on the compromise bill, 44 Republicans, five Democrats and one independent voted against it and 45 Democrats and four Republicans voted to pass it, but were 11 votes short of the 60 needed to enact the measure.

Schumer’s generic drug bill passed easily, 78 to 21. It would reduce the ability of major pharmaceutical companies to keep the lower-cost generic drugs off the market, a major benefit to seniors.

It would reduce spending on brand name drugs by an estimated $60 billion, or 1.3 percent, over 10 years. But the bill’s chances of passage in the Republican-controlled House are not considered good.

What effect the failure of this issue, will have on the elections this year is hard to say. Certainly, both parties will bombard voters with propaganda to make it seem the opposition did all the damage. It will be a choice for some seniors when they get near the ballot box, so seniors should commit themselves to doing lots of homework on this before they get to a polling place. Their only hope for relief is still to come, and their votes can affect the future, so they’ll have to gather a lot of information and peruse it carefully before making a decision.

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