Friday, November 28, 2003
The Seattle Times: Big Pharm Big Winner in Medicare Sweepstakes.
With the closely held GOP legislation approaching 1,000 pages, it will take time to fully understand all that was included and what the cost will be.Amen, brother. Ever read a session law? It's an interesting exercise. This is what got delivered to House members and Senators just before the Thanksgiving recess: (1) text of the legislation (678 pp.), (2) the joint explanatory statement of the Conferees (403 pp.), (3) a summary of the Medicare conference agreement, (4) a summary of the regulatory and contracting reform conference agreement, (5) a table of Congressional Budget Office estimates for major provisions of H.R. 1 and S. 1 (the competing versions of the Medicare reform bill), and (6) the CBO's 68-page analysis of both bills as of June 27 (i.e., before the conference committee started whacking at the bills to forge their compromise). It will take days, if not weeks, to track these changes back through existing provisions to make sense of the whole thing, and just as long, if not longer, to get a solid estimate of costs and savings from the bipartisan CBO.
Still, this much is known, as Washington Sen. Patty Murray put it, "The Senate has passed a bill that fundamentally changes the Medicare program while adding a meager 'drug benefit.' "What does seem pretty clear, however, is that, "in the final analysis, U.S. pharmaceutical companies will be better protected than elderly Americans in the overhaul of Medicare passed by Congress." Consider:
A bipartisan desire for a prescription drug benefit for the 40 million people on Medicare morphed into a legislative catch-all that tied enough disparate interests together to pass sweeping changes.
An initial impulse is to say that the bloated Medicare bill is better than nothing. That is not clear at all.
- "Private employers will receive $70 billion in tax-free subsidies to encourage continued drug coverage for retirees once the Medicare drug plan begins in 2006."
- "The new drug benefit will be administered by private companies and health plans with $12 billion in subsidies."
- "In the meantime, Medicare is specifically prohibited from using its buying power to negotiate discounts for bulk drug purchases or create any price structures for reimbursement."
- "Also, the government cannot have a preferred list of cost-effective drugs or specify a cheaper generic substitute for a costlier name brand. Medicare sets prices with doctors and hospitals but is prevented by law from doing the same thing with prescription medicine."
- "The final bill did not directly ban reimporting cheaper drugs from Canada, but requires Department of Health and Human Services approval, which has been refused."
And how did Medicare beneficiaries and rural providers -- the ostensible targets of this reform package -- make out?
- "The bill costs $400 billion over 10 years, and includes $25 billion in higher payments to rural hospitals and doctors. Other hospitals and doctors facing cuts under current law will receive higher payments or avoid future cuts."
- For two years, 2004 and 2005, Medicare beneficiaries can buy a discount card worth a savings of about 15 percent. Starting in 2006, the Medicare plan will collect a monthly $35 premium and charge a $250 deductible. Then insurance would pay 75 percent of drug costs up to $2,250. Then coverage stops until the retiree pays the next $2,850 out of pocket. Both the premium and gap in coverage are forecast to grow 78 percent in the first seven years of the plan. . . . Premiums and deductibles would be waived for seniors with incomes up to $12,123, and $6,000 in assets. Other seniors, especially with incomes over $80,000 a year, will find higher premiums."
Each piece could have been handled separately. A clean prescription bill was possible. So was more money for rural hospitals. But taken together, they provided political cover for a fundamental change in the 38-year-old government-run Medicare plan.For its part, Big Pharm's trade association, PhRMA, posted an announcement on its president, Alan Holmer's web page that was emphatically jubilant about the historic victory for seniors and disabled persons," not to mention Big Pharm, eh, Brother Holmer? Amen.
Democrats did not get the drug plan they wanted, and many conservative Republicans are simply appalled at the expense: "We are saddling future generations with enormous liabilities," said Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.
Narrow approval in the House and reluctant passage in the Senate are tell-tale signs not of triumphant compromise, but deep misgivings about what was accomplished. Only the nation's drug companies are absolutely sure.