With the $395 billion Medicare reform bill awaiting President Bush's signature, reaction was divided on what the changes -- the most sweeping to Medicare since its 1965 creation -- would mean for seniors and the future of the program. The Senate passed the bill 54-44 this morning, after a 220-215 vote in the House over the weekend. "For the first time in our nation's history, our seniors will have universal, voluntary access to assistance with the cost of prescription drugs," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the key Democratic architect of the bill. Along with adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the bill would expand the role of private health plans in Medicare, give hospitals and doctors additional reimbursement and put an 18-month moratorium on physician referrals to new specialty hospitals in which the doctors are shareholders. Bush is expected to sign the bill into law, reportedly within the next few weeks.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who was instrumental in getting more funding for rural hospitals included in the bill, said, "We're not only saving (Medicare), we're also improving it." However, many Democrats and consumer groups, with the notable exception of the AARP, opposed the bill, saying it would not adequately address seniors' needs. Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said the bill excessively benefits health plans and drugmakers. "The more seniors learn about this legislation, the less they will feel that it reflects their interests and needs," Pollack said. Although drug coverage under the bill would not begin until 2006, seniors would be able to purchase a drug discount card before then. "I've been working on this for 15 years," CMS Administrator Tom Scully said of the bill. "In all, it's a great bill." -- by Tony Fong