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Dingell Says Budget, Drug Benefit Woes Make Case for National Health Care

JANUARY 26, 2006 -- John D. Dingell, D-Mich., renewed his call for nationwide health coverage Thursday, saying a vote next week on a budget savings package and a faltering new Medicare benefit highlights the urgent need for change.

Dingell spoke at a Washington health care conference sponsored by left-leaning advocacy group Families USA.

"The safety net is becoming threadbare," Dingell said. "It has large holes."

The longest currently serving member of the House has introduced a bill to provide nationwide health coverage every session since taking office in 1955, in keeping with his father's efforts to overhaul health care during his own tenure in Congress.

Dingell seized the opportunity this week to denounce a $37.9 billion budget savings package slated for final passage Feb. 1.

The bill would accumulate savings by trimming entitlement programs such as Medicaid, reducing the price that program pays for prescription drugs, and giving states flexibility to increase cost-sharing for Medicaid beneficiaries and to alter benefits packages. The measure would result in a net $4.8 billion from projected spending on Medicaid and $6.4 billion from Medicare.

Dingell said the changes would force parents to pay more money out of pocket to provide health care to their children and warned health care advocates that families could be denied care if they cannot immediately pay.

"The reconciliation bill is the hardest and harshest on those who are the sickest," Dingell said. "The health consequences will be severe."

Dingell also told his audience he sent a letter on Monday to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt, criticizing the administration's implementation of the new Medicare benefit, Part D. Since its launch on Jan. 1, low-income seniors have reported widespread problems getting drugs they previously received through Medicaid, and several states have stepped in to pay for seniors' drugs until the problem is rectified.

Dingell's letter asks HHS to respond with a timeline and plan of action to correct those problems by the time the House returns Jan. 31. The letter also assures the secretary that "clearly, legislative solutions will be needed to address some of these matters."

"We saw this as a train wreck," Dingell said. "We knew it was coming."

The Bush administration announced Jan. 24 that either insurance plans or the federal government will reimburse states that have stepped in to pay for medications for low-income seniors enrolled in the new Medicare drug benefit.

The Senate Special Committee on Aging, the first congressional committee scheduled to examine the new benefit's implementation, has scheduled a Feb. 2 hearing to examine problems with implementing the new benefit.

"An undertaking of this magnitude is going to have some complications early on," said Demetrios Karoutsos, the Aging panel's communications director. "The worst-case scenario is people ending up in emergency rooms because people are not able to get their drugs or are unable to afford their drugs."

Dingell insisted that a bill to provide sweeping health care coverage would eliminate such pressing problems.

"Lobbying Rep. Dingell is not like preaching to the choir," said Families USA director Ron Pollack. "It's like preaching to the Pope."

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