Congressional leaders and Bush administration officials said they would push for enactment of a Medicare reform plan this year to add prescription drugs to Medicare-covered benefits.
After a meeting early last week between President Bush, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and other key lawmakers, Grassley said he plans to present Medicare restructuring legislation to his committee for a vote by July.
"We're going to do this sooner rather than later," he said.
Grassley's vow, however, drew a skeptical reaction from provider groups.
"There's been more talk about whether (Part) A and (Part) B should be combined for the budget than there has been about the structural changes," said Fish Brown, director of public policy with the Catholic Health Association. "They're going to have to deal with the budget issues first and then talk about the reform."
Still, Bush's commitment breathed a little life into the Medicare reform debate that just a week before seemed doomed by partisan politics (March 5, p. 8).
The lawmakers met with Bush to develop principles for such Medicare legislation and a schedule for drafting a bill. Also present at the meeting were Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and William Thomas (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Sens. William Frist (R-Tenn.) and John Breaux (D-La.), who have introduced two Medicare reform bills.
Like Breaux and Thomas, Bush has advocated Medicare reforms that would follow a model outlined two years ago by the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. Using that approach, Medicare would pay most, but not all, of seniors' premiums for joining private-sector health insurance plans. The commission, co-chaired by Breaux and Thomas, never formally approved the model.
The congressional leaders said Bush's "immediate helping hand" proposal, which would give states $48 billion over four years to help low-income seniors buy prescription drugs, would be part of the overall Medicare restructuring plan.
Separately last week, Tauzin won a warm reception from an audience of about 1,000 physicians and medical students at an American Medical Association conference in Washington after he vowed "major reform" of HCFA and a dramatic reduction of government regulation of healthcare.
Tauzin, the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, alluded to criticism of HCFA as "abusive, mean-spirited and irrational" and vowed to find out whether there is truth to those allegations. The promised investigation was likened to Congress' probe of abuses by the Internal Revenue Service in 1998. "Our job is going to be to expose (abuses)," he said.
-With Michael Romano