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Update: Will There Be A Prescription Drug Benefit?

When FRONTLINE first aired "The Other Drug War" in June 2003, the conventional wisdom was that Congress was on the verge of passing historic Medicare reform that would include a prescription drug benefit for seniors. In fact, both the House and the Senate did pass legislation with a $400 billion prescription drug benefit, and the bills were sent to be reconciled in a conference committee.

However, as of Nov. 13, 2003, after five months of negotiations, it is still unclear whether a final bill will be sent to President Bush by the time Congress recesses on Nov. 21. If a deal fails, it is likely that the initiative will pass back to the states. FRONTLINE asked three health care experts to comment on the political, economic and social realities that have caused the legislation to stall.

Richard Evans
Evans is a senior research analyst of global pharmaceuticals at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. He argues that if a prescription drug benefit does not pass in Congress, the battleground will shift back to the states with several consequences for the pharmaceutical industry. He tells FRONTLINE that although re-importation of drugs from Canada is only a "mild headache" for the industry, it is troublesome that Americans are becoming increasingly savvy about lower overseas drugs prices. "If I were a drug company executive, on average, I'd be very worried," Evans says. "My ability to set prices in an open market is very much under siege. And that ultimately is probably the most important economic variable that my success depends on." This interview was conducted on Nov. 7, 2003. [Also, read an earlier interview with Evans from February 2003.]

Dr. Uwe Reinhardt
Reinhardt is a professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton University and has been studying the U.S. health care system for two decades. He argues that a prescription drug benefit should be targeted not strictly towards seniors, but towards the poor and poor seniors. Reinhardt says that the pharmaceutical industry could have avoided being "the scapegoat for all kinds of problems in health spending" if it had been proactive in assisting low-income recipients. He says that if the battle returns to the states, and they "will use every trick in the book and push for all kinds of things," including price controls. This interview was conducted on Nov. 4, 2003. [Also, read an earlier interview with Reinhardt from October 2002.]

Julie Rovner
Rovner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR). In this interview, she describes the political fault lines in the battle to reconcile the House and Senate Medicare prescription drug benefit bills. "Time is running out," Rovner tells FRONTLINE. "They've resolved everything except these big divisive issues. And the question is not so much whether those people can resolve it amongst themselves, but whether it can be resolved in a way that can get a majority in the House, which will need the conservative Republicans, and a majority in the Senate, which will need the Senate Democrats. And right now both of those groups are standing up saying mutually exclusive things." This interview was conducted on Nov. 10, 2003.

 

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posted november 13, 2003

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