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House Passes Medicare Drug Bill

Freshman House Democrats talk about the measure at a Capitol Hill news conference. From left are Nick Lampson (Tex.), Christopher S. Murphy (Conn.), Steven L. Kagen (Wis.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio).
Freshman House Democrats talk about the measure at a Capitol Hill news conference. From left are Nick Lampson (Tex.), Christopher S. Murphy (Conn.), Steven L. Kagen (Wis.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.) and Charlie Wilson (Ohio). (By Manuel Balce-ceneta -- Associated Press)

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By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007

The House voted yesterday to require the government to negotiate lower prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. But the measure faces an uncertain future in the Senate, a veto threat from President Bush, and considerable doubts from experts about whether it would save elderly and disabled Americans much money.

The vote was 255 to 170, with 24 Republicans joining 231 Democrats in approving the legislation.

The bill overturns a provision of the 2003 law pushed through by a Republican-controlled Congress that left drug-price negotiations under the new Medicare drug benefit to the private insurers that offer government-subsidized drug plans for seniors in each state.

Backers of the current system, mainly Republicans, say it pits insurers against one another in a healthy competition to negotiate the lowest prices from drugmakers and offer seniors the most attractive monthly premiums, choice of drugs and access to pharmacies.

But critics, mainly Democrats, say the system is a boon to drug companies because it prohibits the government -- perhaps the one force powerful enough to take on the pharmaceutical industry -- from using its bargaining muscle on behalf of seniors.

"This legislation is a common-sense effort to do right by the 43 million Americans enrolled in Medicare," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "This bill is a very important first step in making prescription drugs more affordable."

The bill would require Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt to pursue negotiations with drug companies and report to Congress in six months.

Medicare "pays more than the VA pays for the same prescription pharmaceuticals," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the lead sponsor of the bill, referring to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The reason is no one is able to negotiate on behalf of the citizens," he added. "You've got a bunch of coldhearted prescription pharmaceutical people . . . who are fixing the prices that are paid by seniors citizens. . . . It's time that we correct this."

Leavitt and other Republicans countered that the year-old program is working, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reporting overall costs coming in billions of dollars lower than expected and average plan premiums being lower this year than in 2006. Moreover, polls conducted last fall by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and other nonpartisan groups found that the overwhelming majority of seniors were satisfied with their drug plans.

"Many of us believe that competition and using free-market principles in the long run produce better results, lower costs, higher quality and more satisfaction among seniors. And that's exactly what we've seen with this plan," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Republicans also pointed to separate analyses this week from the CMS and the Congressional Budget Office that concluded that the House bill would have little or no effect on spending.

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