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From CQ Newsroom: Critics Renew Call for Delay or Repeal of Medicare Drug Benefit

OCTOBER 7, 2005 -- Capitalizing on the increased scrutiny of federal spending in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, fiscal conservatives are renewing their calls on Congress to repeal or scale back the new drug benefit in Medicare.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said Congress should repeal or delay implementation of the 2003 law (PL 108-173) that created the Medicare prescription drug benefit. The new benefit goes into effect Jan. 1.

"Congress made a monstrous mistake with good intentions," Cooper said. "Congress needs to address that mistake before it's too late."

The Medicare drug law, which passed the House by 220–215 only after hours of arm-twisting by Republican leaders, was intended to be a hallmark of the Bush administration's social policy platform.

But rising cost estimates and confusion among seniors about the benefit created a backlash among conservatives, who called for a repeal shortly after passage. Their legislation went nowhere after the hard-fought battle to pass the bill.

The three lawmakers speaking Friday said that Hurricane Katrina has now created an opportunity to revisit the drug benefit as more and more conservatives demand steps to curb entitlement spending and make across-the-board cuts in appropriations.

"If there was a silver lining in the storm, it's a new fiscal awareness of the American people," Cooper said.

President Bush and Republican leaders in Congress have repeatedly ruled out any action this year to change the Medicare drug law. Acknowledging that cutting the benefit would be difficult to push through Congress by itself, the critics said they were hopeful that it could be revisited as part of broader spending cuts.

"You can't look at it in a vacuum, it'd be tough to turn back," said Flake. "But you have to look at it in the context of other cuts. This might become the path of lesser resistance than other cuts."

All three members agreed that benefits for low-income seniors provided under the new law are worthwhile, but they balked at the availability of the new entitlement to seniors of all income levels.

"Couldn't we at least delay it?" McCain said. "Couldn't we say to low-income, here's a piece of paper, go and get your prescription. And the rest of you, we're not going to go through this cockamamie" process.

McCain also used the forum to reaffirm his opposition to a $8.9 billion spending proposal—sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa—to expand Medicaid coverage to all low-income residents of hurricane-affected areas.

"We've been working to reduce the cost, and to take it out of the $40 billion FEMA still hasn't spent," McCain said.

Grassley has been in talks with opponents to get the Medicaid hurricane relief bill (S 1716) down to about $6 billion, but no agreement has been reached.

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