Hoyer Decries Drug Bills' Deficiencies

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) strode into the Richard R. Clark Senior Center in La Plata on Monday and told a room full of seniors that if they were hoping for a good prescription drug law from Congress, they were pretty much out of luck.

Along with a panel of health care advocates, Hoyer led the presentation to about 100 elderly citizens about the deficiencies in the Senate and House of Representatives bills to add prescription drug benefits to the Medicare program.

"Neither one of them, in my opinion, are particularly good bills. And one of them, the House bill, is terrible," said Hoyer, who supported a third bill proposed by House Democrats, which did not pass. "I believe both bills have major problems for seniors."

One of Hoyer's criticisms of the proposed legislation was what he described as the "illogical gap in coverage," where seniors with no other prescription drug coverage would pay premiums to Medicare without receiving coverage for certain ranges of out-of-pocket costs. The House bill has the larger gap, according to the nonprofit organization Families USA. The measure would provide benefits for the first $2,000 of annual drug expenditures but then offers no benefits for annual drug costs from $2,000 to $4,900. The gap in the Senate bill is between $4,500 and $5,813.

Bill Vaughn, director of government affairs for Families USA, estimated that over the next 10 years Americans on Medicare are going to spend $1.34 trillion on prescription drugs. With a benefit program estimated to allocate only $400 billion over that time period, the result is more demand than can be satisfied.

"That explains why we've got a crummy bill," Vaughn said.

The legislation is of special interest to many Southern Maryland seniors who lost prescription drug coverage when the few private insurers offering such benefits decided not to continue offering such plans to seniors.

Both bills in Congress call for an increased involvement by private health plans in providing senior citizen coverage. In the House bill, a provision calls for direct price competition by 2010 between Medicare and private plans.

Priscilla Chatman of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare told the crowd that the provision "will destroy Medicare as we know it" because in the competitive market for health care clients, Medicare would be left covering the older and sicker patients, which would drive up the program's costs. Another area of criticism in the House bill was the provision for "means testing," or considering an individual's income to determine the level of benefit provided.

"If you start basing Medicare on income, then you have a welfare program and that's not something we want," Chatman said.

Marion Craft, 78, of Newburg takes medication for osteoporosis, arthritis, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Along with her husband, Stuart, 85, she spends between $12,000 and $15,000 a year on medication. She said some type of prescription drug legislation is crucial.

"We have a tremendous amount of expenses. We seniors definitely need something done," Craft said. "My husband clipped something out of the paper about calling Canada for cheaper prescription drugs. We haven't done it yet, but who knows."