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Compromise on Medicare drug benefit announced

House, Senate leaders agree 'in principle' on final form

From Ted Barrett
CNN Washington Bureau

House, Senate leaders agree 'in principle' on final form

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Health care policy

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Republican Congressional leaders, joined by two Senate Democrats, announced Saturday they had reached a tentative "agreement in principle" on a compromise Medicare prescription drug bill that had stymied negotiators for months.

The agreement won't be final until one of those lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, reviews the fine print overnight, aides said. Assuming it passes his review, the bill will be readied for presentation to the full House and Senate as early as next week.

A news conference to give details on the compromise is scheduled Sunday.

"Now we start counting the votes," said a top House Republican aide, indicating the real fight for passage will likely take place in the Senate, where a number of Republicans have raised concerns about various parts of the legislation.

The GOP narrowly controls the Senate. Most Democrats in the House and Senate are likely to oppose the final bill.

"Each side had to give a little in order to give a lot to America's seniors," said Rep. Bill Thomas, a California Republican and chairman of the negotiations. "Our agreement improves seniors' Medicare benefits by adding prescription drugs and preventative and wellness provisions while modernizing the delivery of health care. It will provide more fairness in sharing Medicare's costs between seniors and American taxpayers who want to ensure Medicare is available for their families when they retire."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican of Illinois, said the agreement has the support of AARP, the nation's largest and most powerful seniors' lobby.

To get the agreement, leaders had to clear what had been the largest hurdle to compromise, consensus on the structure for a pilot project to inject free-market competition, known as premium support, into the health insurance program that serves 40 million senior and disabled Americans.

Many Republicans believe the private sector will help control the costs of Medicare, which faces an uncertain fiscal future as more and more baby boomers draw benefits. But Democrats argue the private plans will draw wealthy and healthy people away from traditional Medicare, causing premiums to soar for those who remain behind.

Another issue that was closed Saturday deals with ensuring that corporate health plans don't dump their retirees once Medicare's prescription drug plan is in place. Fearful that Medicare would face bankruptcy if that happened, lawmakers set aside at least $70 billion -- nearly one-fourth of the budgeted cost of the entire drug benefit -- to encourage corporations not to take that step.

Baucus and others pushed for more money for this purpose. Details of the resolution were not available.

Earlier Saturday, in his weekly radio address, Bush urged Congress to finish the bill.

"The time for delay and deadlock has passed. Now is the time for action," he said.

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