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Competing drug plans for elderly unveiled

Competing drug plans for elderly unveiled

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- House Republicans and Senate Democrats have unveiled competing election-year proposals to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare, the federal government health-care plan for the elderly and disabled.

It is not the first time Congress has tried to enact the benefit, which polls show is popular with older Americans, but lawmakers said they want to pass a bill through Congress before Election Day in November.

However, the plans outlined Wednesday indicate Congress is divided on the shape and scope of the benefit.

The Democratic plan, offered by Sens. Bob Graham, D-Florida, and Zell Miller, D-Georgia, would cost an estimated $400 billion and $500 billion over 10 years. It is more expensive than the Republican proposal, which backers said is designed to cost less than $350 billion.

Under the Democratic initiative -- a work in progress -- senior citizens would pay a $25 monthly premium, and Medicare would cover 50 percent of each prescription up to a cap of $4,000 per year. After hitting $4,000, the government would pay the full cost. There would be no deductible.

"I'm interested in passing a prescription drug benefit," Miller said. "Anything short of that will be failure. And those who fail should be dealt with accordingly on Election Day, regardless of party."

Miller said the influential group AARP has endorsed the bill. However, the Senate Democratic leadership has not yet signed off on it.

Under the Republican plan -- still being finalized -- senior citizens would get federal government assistance to buy private prescription drug coverage. The elderly would pay monthly premiums in the $35-$45 range, a $250 deductible and a small co-payment, but the government would pay 75 percent to 80 percent of each prescription up to $1,000. The government then would split the cost with senior citizens until a ceiling of about $2,000 is reached.

It would pick up the full cost of coverage after a cap of $4,000 to $6,000 was reached per year.

Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, called the GOP plan "affordable and realistic." Thomas, R-California, helped pass a bill with similar language in 2000.

"House Republicans believe that no senior should be forced to choose between putting food on the table or buying the medicines they need," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, said at a news conference Wednesday.

But House Democrats said they are skeptical the GOP can deliver a useful benefit for under $350 billion.

"[The] announcement was more about making campaign buttons than filling prescription bottles," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-California.

President Bush has his own proposal, which is similar to the House Republican plan although its estimated $190 billion price tag is smaller.

The president also has pushed for immediate grants to the states to assist the elderly in buying prescription drugs while lawmakers work out the details of a long-term program.




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