KWAME HOLMAN: Grubbs Pharmacy in Washington, D.C., fills some 700 prescriptions a day. Its owner says about half of those are for senior citizens, and the cost of their drugs is rising steadily. Grubbs is a short walk from the Capitol. On Tuesday, House Democrats came over to tout their plan to help seniors pay for prescription drugs, and to ridicule the plan advanced by house Republicans.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Industry lobbyists probably have writer's cramp today for all the work they've been doing on the Republican plan. The big drug companies strongly endorse the Republican plan because that plan will protect industry profits, force seniors into private insurance and ultimately lead to the privatization of Medicare. The Republican plan fails to guarantee the premium and fails to guarantee access to coverage for drugs. In short, the Republican plan is a fraud.
KWAME HOLMAN: The political momentum to help seniors with their prescription drug costs has grown steadily in recent weeks. Last month, House Republicans were the first to take formal committee action. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut is a primary author of the GOP prescription drug plan.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON, (R) Connecticut: We have worked hard in a focused way on providing prescription drugs for seniors. We absolutely must get a bill through the House this year and to the President's desk.
KWAME HOLMAN: But for much of this week it was an open question whether leaders of the Republican-controlled House could cobble together enough votes from their own party members to pass their prescription drug plan. Floor debate finally got underway at about 9:00 last night. It began with a parade of 36 women from the Democratic side of the aisle who assailed the Republican plan, and the fact Democrats were not allowed to offer their plan at all.
SPOKESPERSON: Expressing my opposition to this shameful bill that is particularly harmful to the senior women in my district.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: We have had a parade of my colleagues from the other side claim that this legislation is harmful to senior women. Perhaps you didn't know that retired women are living on half the income of retired men; that the average income of retired men in America is $30,000 and the average income of retired women is $15,000, and of retired women over 85 is $10,000. Under this bill, those low-income women will receive 100 percent of the cost of their drugs of their premiums, of the deductible, and of the co-insurance up to major $2 to $5.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House Republican plan would give government subsidies of $210 billion over ten years to underwrite senior prescription drugs cost. Seniors would pay a monthly premium of about $33 and the first $250 of their annual drug costs.
After that, insurers would pick up 80 percent of drug costs up to $1,000, and 50 percent up to $2,000. Seniors themselves would have to pay drug costs they incur up to $3,700. Coverage would kick in again to pay for all prescriptions above that amount. The premiums and other costs put a senior's maximum out-of-pocket expense at about $4,100 a year.
Tennessee Democrat John Tanner said the plan won't work.
REP. JOHN TANNER, (D) Tennessee: What we're trying to do is here is put a square peg in a round hole in. In that, this bill tries to make an insurable product out of a benefit for which there is no risk pool for the concept, the theory of insurance to work. Now insurance doesn't work when every policyholder is also making the claim against their policy. By the very inception of this kind of protocol, every policyholder will be making a claim. It's simply is not an insurable product.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats said their plan to provide prescription coverage under the Medicare program at a ten-year cost of $800 billion is far less expensive for seniors.
REP. XAVIER BECERRA, (D) California: Under this plan, a senior who has $5,000 in annual prescription drug costs-- and there are a lot them who do-- would have to pay $4,200 out of pocket out of that $5,000 cost. Compare that to the Democratic plan where the total cost of the seniors for that $5,000 cost would be $1,380, a savings of $2,800 between the Republican plan and the Democratic plan. Those are the facts. That is the difference, but we don't have a chance to put our Democratic plan for a vote here.
KWAME HOLMAN: At about 2:30 this morning, the vote was held. The Republican bill passed 201 to 2089 with eight Democrats crossing the aisle. Senate Democratic leaders say prescription drug coverage for seniors is on their agenda for July.