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House Dems Unveil Measures to Help Cover Uninsured

MAY 4, 2005 -- House Democrats unveiled a series of initiatives Wednesday that they said could cut the number of the nation's uninsured Americans by half.

The lawmakers' ideas included allowing early retirees to buy into the federal Medicare program and permitting parents of children eligible for Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program to purchase health care coverage through those programs.

The Democrats would also create purchasing pools and provide tax credits to help small businesses purchase coverage. Additional legislation would give the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) the power to negotiate prescription drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries and permit seniors and others to import drugs from foreign countries where they often sell for less than in the United States. The Democrats also want to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $1.5 billion over President Bush's fiscal 2006 request.

While the proposals would cost money to implement, in the long run they would save taxpayers' dollars because funding preventive care is always less expensive than waiting to treat a full-blown illness, the Democrats said.

"Care denied or care delayed always costs more when they turn 65," said California Rep. Pete Stark, one of several Democrats who introduced legislation Wednesday to permit the Medicare buy-in for early retirees.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said allowing consumers to import drugs from other countries would allow U.S. consumers to stop subsidizing drug prices of foreign countries. He added that permitting the HHS secretary to negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare's more than 40 million elderly and disabled beneficiaries would save taxpayers billions.

"Time and again we've proven the leverage of bulk buying," he said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said lawmakers should give the Medicare drug bill (PL 108-173) a chance to work before making any changes to it. The bill includes a provision prohibiting the HHS secretary from negotiating drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries.

"Let's see how the Medicare system is implemented and if there need to be adjustments at a later date then we'll entertain that," he told reporters.

Drug importation, DeLay said, would allow unsafe drugs to flood the country. "You can't convince me that the people that mail order drugs from other countries can guarantee their safety," he said. "Until you can guarantee that, I will never support reimportation."

The Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade group representing pharmaceutical benefit managers (PBMs), said allowing the HHS secretary to negotiate prescription drug prices for beneficiaries could lead to fewer choices of covered drugs and higher drug costs for consumers in other parts of the system. PBMs negotiate drug discounts with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of insurers and employers offering health care coverage.

"Rather than dictating a one-size-fits-all approach, policymakers should be focusing on common-sense solutions that can provide consumers with access to a choice of plans providing coverage for clinically-proven, cost-effective brand-name and generic drugs," association president Mark Merritt said in a news release.

The House Democrats' news conference was one of several events during Cover the Uninsured Week (May 1–8) in Washington and around the country to draw attention to the nation's 45 million people who do not have health insurance.

Despite the Senate being in recess, Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have urged colleagues to participate in a Cover The Uninsured event, enter a statement into the Congressional Record, put out a press release about the uninsured, or write an op-ed in their home state's newspaper of record.

Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and chief executive officer of The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has helped to coordinate activities throughout the country to draw attention to the nation's uninsured, praised Frist's and Reid's attentions to the matter.

"Our country desperately needs less partisan positioning and more cooperation on health care," Lavizzo-Mourey said in a statement. "We hope that more leaders will set aside their preconceived notions about expanding coverage and work together to seek common ground. Now is the time to rise above partisanship and embrace compromise as the first choice, not as the last resort."

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