House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) will appoint a task force today to devise a plan to provide prescription drug coverage for senior citizens, according to his aides.
The issue is how to best serve elderly Americans who lack drug benefits. President Clinton has proposed providing all seniors with drug insurance through Medicare, while House Republicans back a more market-based approach targeted at low-income senior citizens.
Hastert has asked the heads of two key committees, Ways and Means and Commerce, to develop a joint proposal that can be voted on this spring. The two panels will conduct hearings on the issue next month.
Although Republicans have not yet finalized their drug plan, they said it would provide the elderly poor with greater coverage without threatening pharmaceutical research or forcing the elderly into a government-run program.
"We must find ways to help give those seniors who need it better access to affordable prescription drugs," Hastert said in a statement. "We will do it in a way that does not threaten the solvency of the Medicare program."
GOP lawmakers are exploring several ways that could make prescription drugs more accessible. Among them:
* Providing block grants to the states, similar to the way Medicaid funds for children are distributed.
* Giving a tax credit to poor Americans whose annual incomes are as much as twice poverty level, or about $18,000 a couple.
* Allowing low- and middle-income seniors to buy insurance as a group so they could exercise greater purchasing power in dealing with pharmaceutical companies.
* Creating tax-free retirement savings accounts.
Democratic leaders, however, are likely to resist such proposals. Clinton has vowed to provide prescription drug coverage for all 33.4 million seniors who receive Medicare. At least 10 million Medicare recipients, for example, would not qualify for the GOP plan because many of them are significantly above the poverty level.
Republicans say they are exploring whether they can provide more comprehensive coverage but are focusing more on poor seniors.
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Republicans should create a bipartisan task force if they want to craft compromise legislation.
"It sounds to me like another sidetrack approach, where they realize this is popular in the polls and people want it on the floor, but rather than putting bills on the floor . . . they set up task forces and try to come up with derivative ideas that don't solve the problem," Gephardt said. "The key component in the president's plan, and I think he's going to emphasize this in his State of the Union speech, is that it's universal. It's voluntary and universal."
In the coming weeks, Democrats hope to employ House procedures to push for floor votes on two separate bills, one that provides a Medicare drug benefit and another that gives seniors leverage by allowing group drug purchases.
Some moderate Democrats suggested there could be a middle ground between Clinton's plan and the GOP's. Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.), who was worked on the issue with Republicans in the past, said providing prescription drugs solely through a government agency could lead to price controls and that focusing on poor seniors made economic sense.
"It is appropriate to provide the greatest level of assistance, in terms of providing a drug benefit, to those with the least ability to pay," said Dooley, who supports a plan in the context of broader Medicare reform. "In doing so, we can provide a much more comprehensive benefit than a universal benefit."
It is unclear how outside interest groups will react to any GOP prescription benefit plan. Martin Corry, director of federal relations for AARP, said he welcomed any effort by Republicans to provide seniors with better access to drugs but questioned whether such services would work outside the Medicare program.
Corry added that any prescription drug tax credit would have to be refundable, since half of all seniors do not complete tax forms because of their low income.