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Tough road ahead for House drug-price plan

By ANITA KUMAR
Published January 13, 2007


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WASHINGTON - In their second week in control, House Democrats made good on a campaign promise Friday by passing a plan requiring the federal government to negotiate with drug companies for lower Medicare prescription prices.

The lopsided, 255-170 vote was expected, but the proposal now faces an uphill battle.

Democrats must get the bill through the more moderate Senate and past President Bush, who this week vowed to veto it.

"It saddens me that we are going to start off this year with the new Democrat-controlled Congress playing politics with Medicare," said Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, the top Republican on the committee that would write the bill. "But that is what this is about."

The bill is one of the House Democrats' six top priorities expected to pass in the first two weeks - or 100 legislative hours.

Medicare Part D, the prescription drug plan created in 2003 and enacted in 2006, currently bars the secretary of health and human services from negotiating drug prices for millions of Americans.

From the start, Democrats complained that the plan cost seniors too much while benefiting the pharmaceutical manufacturers and private health plans.

Millions of people "can have the purchasing power to perhaps encourage these drug houses to give the government and the American retirees a better price," said Rep. John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who wrote the negotiation bill.

Republicans say the plan's cost already has been less than anticipated because of competition among prescription plans, and they worry that a change would create a pricey entitlement program that the government can not afford.

"The bill before us was crafted ... in the middle of the night with no real input from the other side," said Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville.

The House proposal led to intense lobbying on Capitol Hill this week by AARP, a supporter, and the pharamacetical industry, an opponent.

Several recent independent polls show that a majority of recipients are satisfied with their plans but they want the government to be able to negotiate with companies.

"Any plan that even has the possibility of lowering drug prices should be tried," said Spring Hill resident Dorothy Swanson, 67, who is on AARP's stand-alone drug plan but ended up buying cheaper breast cancer drugs from India rather than from her local drugstore.

The Senate, which will hold hearings on the plan's change, could vote as soon as February.

Montana Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat who runs the committee that would write new legislation, said this week that he opposes the House bill but plans to suggest simply removing the existing ban on negotiating with drug companies.

Bush, who spearheaded the prescription drug plan through Congress and often calls it one of his greatest domestic achievements, has said competition is already reducing prices for seniors and creating an environment friendly to researching the development of new drugs.

"If this bill is presented to the president, he will veto it," Tony Snow, White House press secretary, said Friday.

The Bush administration announced this week that 23.5- million seniors had enrolled in stand-alone plans as of Jan. 1.

Times staff writer Kris Hundley and researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.

How they voted

No

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville

Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow

Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores

Yes

Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa

Next step

The Senate still has to vote on the bill. Florida's senators have split on the proposal in the past. Republican Sen. Mel Martinez has opposed it, while Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has supported it.

[Last modified January 13, 2007, 01:13:42]


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