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House approves Rx drug plan

GOP turns back Democratic opposition

House approves Rx drug plan

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives early Friday narrowly approved a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients which, while it faces tough opposition in the Senate, is expected to be a key campaign issue for Republicans vying to maintain their slim margin of control in the House.

The final vote was 221 to 208 with six legislators not voting, according to the House's Web site. The bill was passed about 2:30 a.m., largely along party lines.

The White House hailed the vote as an "important step forward," and rejected Democratic charges that the GOP is playing politics with the issue.

"For too long, America's seniors have been held hostage to political fingerpointing in Washington and here for the first time, you have a Congress, a Republican House, that has passed a bill to give seniors prescription coverage," Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary, told reporters.

Democrats have criticized the plan, saying it is a smokescreen. They say the Republican plan provides too little coverage for older Americans.

"The bill is a terrible bill; it's a sham," said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota. "If you have a $400-per-month prescription drug benefit -- or, I should say, prescription drug bill, you only get about four and a half months of coverage. In other words, seven and a half months of a year you get no coverage if you have that kind of a bill with the House bill. You have to pay $750 to get the first $2,000 of coverage, and then you have to pay $2,900 after that to get any additional coverage. It is a sham. It is awful."

He added, though, that he wanted to get something passed, even if it is not perfect. "There's no way we'll get a perfect bill, from our perspective. But I want to avoid getting no bill, too. I want to get a bill of some sort. I'd really like to get legislation passed this year," Daschle said.

"Their bill is designed to solve their political dilemma of sounding like they care about senior citizens while simultaneously draining the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to pay for huge tax breaks that benefit their wealthy contributors," Rep. Pete Stark, a Ways and Means Democrat said.

The $350 billion GOP plan is more expensive than an estimated $190 billion proposal offered by the White House but considerably cheaper than an $800 billion plan House Democrats announced last week and two separate $500 billion Senate Democratic plans.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, a key author of the bill, called it the "most significant addition to Medicare since its inception."

Under the plan, the government would pay 80 percent of the first $1,000 of drug costs after seniors met a $250 deductible. Seniors would pick up the remaining 20 percent. From $1,001 to $2,000 seniors would split the cost of drugs with the government 50-50. From $2,000 to $4,500 seniors would pay 100 percent of the drug costs, and above that catastrophic protection would be triggered and the government would cover all of the costs.

Seniors would pay monthly premiums of about $33.

Republicans unveiled the bill last week after several weeks of negotiations with doctors, hospitals and other providers who were concerned the expensive new benefit would eat into the payments they receive caring for Medicare patients.

About $50 billion of the overall price tag now is set aside for additional payments to providers.

The House Democratic proposal, which was announced earlier this month, included a $25 monthly premium and a $100 annual deductible; it would pay 80 percent of costs up to $2,000 with full government coverage after that.

-- CNN Capitol Hill Producer Ted Barrett and White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace contributed to this report




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