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Health & medicine

Medicare drug plan closer to final vote

By Associated Press
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 13, 2003

WASHINGTON - Legislation providing prescription drug coverage under Medicare won bipartisan approval Thursday in the Senate Finance Committee as part of the most far-reaching changes in the government's health care program for the elderly since its creation in 1965.

"Both parties have promised for years to add prescription drugs to Medicare," said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, as he presided over a daylong debate carried out in front of dozens of health care lobbyists. "Today we're here to deliver."

"We're about to pass landmark legislation," added Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the senior Democrat on the committee and Grassley's partner in crafting the bipartisan bill.

The measure offers prescription drug benefits for the nation's 40-million Medicare beneficiaries, with coverage to be offered through private insurance companies and financed in part through government subsidies. At the same time it provides for a new managed care option for the elderly - preferred provider organizations - a step the Bush administration says would help modernize Medicare and shore up its long-term finances.

The vote was 16-5 and set the stage for a debate in the full Senate beginning Monday.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., told reporters he was determined to pass the bill before lawmakers leave for a July 4 recess in two weeks and added he hoped to have a final compromise on President Bush's desk by the first week of August.

The committee met as House GOP leaders rolled out their own version of the legislation. Both bills carried price tags in the range of $400-billion over 10 years, and both would impose higher costs on those who remain in traditional Medicare, in part by raising deductible charges for doctor care and out-of-hospital services.

Bush campaigned for the second day for Congress to send him the legislation by July 4, a more ambitious timetable than the one Frist laid out.

"There's story after story after story, all across America, about people wondering whether or not they can afford lifesaving drugs in their later years," Bush said. "And the Congress must act, that's what the Congress must do."

The House and Senate bills vary considerably in details, but at their core they are similar.

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