The Senate this morning gave final congressional approval to the most sweeping changes to Medicare since the entitlement program's creation in 1965, including a new prescription drug benefit. The 54-44 vote sends the bill to President Bush, who is expected to sign it into law. Drug coverage under the $395 billion measure would not begin until 2006, but until then seniors would be able to purchase a drug discount card that the Bush administration has estimated could reduce their pharmacy bills by at least 15%. The measure also would increase reimbursement for doctors and hospitals, particularly in rural areas, and place an 18-month moratorium on physician referrals to new specialty hospitals in which they own an interest. "I've been working on this for 15 years," CMS Administrator Tom Scully said. "In all, it's a great bill. In the long run, it's going to modernize the program."
Support for the compromise legislation, drafted after months of intense politicking, was far from unanimous. Many Democrats vehemently opposed the measure, contending it would excessively benefit health insurers and drug manufacturers, and some consumer groups complained that the proposed drug benefit was inadequate. AARP support for the bill, however, helped push it through the House, where passage was less certain than in the Senate. Over the weekend, the bill passed the House 220-215, in a largely party-line vote. In the Senate, the bill survived a filibuster attempt and a budget challenge. -- by Tony Fong