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Stark Ready to Roll on Medicare

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

November 21, 2006 -- The expected chairman of the House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee told lobbyists Tuesday that he is ready to begin oversight hearings into the Medicare drug benefit starting as early as February.

In a meeting at the lobbying firm Patton Boggs LLP, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) also said that Democrats are mulling over three options for changing the drug benefit, according to sources familiar with the meeting.

The first would be to strike language in the Medicare overhaul law (PL 108-173) that prohibits the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from negotiating drug prices on behalf of Medicare beneficiaries. The second—which Stark said he is leaning toward—would direct the HHS Secretary to do a first round of price negotiation on covered drugs, but drug plans could negotiate prices below that amount.

The third option would be to create a government-run option for Medicare drug coverage that would compete with private plans.

Stark stressed that any decision about how to proceed on Medicare would be done in collaboration with the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which shares Medicare jurisdiction with Ways and Means, and incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Pelosi has said that when Democrats assume control in January, she wants the chamber to act within 100 hours to give the HHS Secretary the power to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients.

In his meeting at Patton Boggs, Stark lamented what he described as a lack of collaboration between Republicans and Democrats in the lame-duck session and said he does not know what if any action may be taken to avert a 5 percent cut in Medicare physician payments set for Jan. 1.

Stark also dubbed pending health care information technology legislation "hollow" and said he wants the government to help finance a move to health IT among providers.

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