Dems attack drug plan

Bill would hurt seniors, they say

For Immediate Release:

July 20, 2003

Contact:CHRIS SERRES, Staff Writer

Charlotte News & Observer

RALEIGH -- North Carolina's Democratic congressional delegation has joined other lawmakers in attacking legislation that would add prescription drug coverage to Medicare.

Reps. David Price of Chapel Hill [Rep. David Price (D-NC)], Bob Etheridge of Lillington [Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC)], Brad Miller of Raleigh [Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC)] and Frank Ballance Jr. of Warrenton [Rep. Frank Ballance, Jr (D-NC)], all Democrats, returned to their home districts Saturday to lay out their arguments against a bill that recently passed the U.S. House and is pending before the Senate.

In a series of town hall meetings, the lawmakers said the legislation -- written almost exclusively by Republicans -- would give insurance companies too much power and leave senior citizens without adequate coverage.

"Hiding behind the rhetoric of reform, the Republican Party has passed a badly flawed Medicare bill that will force senior citizens to continue to pay huge, out-of-pocket expenses" for drugs, Etheridge said. He, Price and Miller discussed the issue with seniors at Parkview Manor, a Raleigh housing complex for low-income people 55 or older.

Lawmakers of both parties are eager to pass legislation that would provide drug benefits to the elderly, an influential voting bloc, before the presidential primaries begin in January.

Recent polls suggest that Republicans are vulnerable on the issue. Seventy-two percent of Americans do not believe that President Bush is making a strong enough effort to deal with health care problems, according to a recent poll by The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

The town hall meetings are part of an orchestrated attempt by the Democrats to "take control" of the prescription drug issue, said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "The Democrats don't want to let this issue slip away," she said.

Under the House bill passed earlier this month, seniors would pay an average monthly premium of $35 plus a $250 deductible. In return, Medicare would pay 80 percent of all drug costs between $251 and $2,000. And the government would pay 100 percent of all drug costs between $4,500 and $5,800.

However, the legislation does not provide coverage for annual drug expenses ranging between $2,000 and $4,900 -- an "intolerable gap," Price said. About 23 percent of seniors nationwide have annual drug expenses that fall in this range, he said.

The legislation also gives too much power to private insurance companies, congressional Democrats say.

Under the House bill, Medicare would pay subsidies to insurance companies to induce them to offer coverage for the drug costs of Medicare beneficiaries. But the bill does not make this coverage mandatory, Etheridge said. If insurance companies do not want to provide the benefits, people could be left without coverage, he said.

About 60 seniors attended Saturday's meeting at Parkview Manor. Many grew emotional as they described how much they had to pay for medicines.

Roosevelt Blaylock, 71, has suffered three heart attacks since 1995. To keep his blood flowing properly, the former archivist for the state government takes three separate drugs. His monthly drug bill is $450, or roughly half his Social Security check.

Blaylock listed all the things he would buy -- a coffee table, lamp, couch and new pair of shoes -- if the government started paying for his drugs.

"When you're just scraping by like I am," Blaylock said, "any [prescription drug] plan sounds better than nothing."