Medicare Bill Hits Members

Posted June 25, 2003 at 6:36pm

Senate GOP leaders are quietly planning to kill an amendment to the Medicare bill that would cut the prescription drug benefits of Members of Congress down to the level being proposed for average senior citizens across the country.

The plan to scrap the provision during the upcoming House-Senate conference committee comes despite Tuesday’s overwhelming passage of an amendment by Sen. Mark Dayton (D-Minn.). The amendment, which passed 93-3, would slash the prescription benefits enjoyed by lawmakers under the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program.

“The staff will make sure it falls even before we get to the conference,” one Senate GOP aide said of the leadership’s plans for the amendment.

Indeed, many Republicans — 50 of whom helped add the provision to the Senate version of the Medicare bill this week — acknowledged that they were told by their leaders to vote for Dayton’s amendment with the understanding that it would not show up in the final version of the legislation — which both chambers are expected to pass this week.

“Most Members saw this as demagoguery,” Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) said of the amendment. “And we weren’t going to condone it publicly by taking it seriously. So we all voted for it.”

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) admitted being shocked by the overwhelming GOP support for the proposal.

“I was [surprised] because there is a significant disparity between what we’re offering to seniors and what we get ourselves,” said Daschle.

Daschle added that Democrats would aggressively push for inclusion of the provision during the House-Senate conference committee on the bill.

Still, Santorum and other Republicans who voted for the amendment said Members should not be singled out for lower prescription drug benefits simply to make a political point.

“While I supported the Dayton amendment, I believe it will not survive — nor should it survive — the conference because federal employees are offered a variety of options, and they pay out of their own pockets for that coverage,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).

Craig noted that the proposal currently under Senate consideration would allow seniors to opt for more comprehensive coverage, if they are willing to pay a higher Medicare premium.

But Democrats charged that Members of Congress should find out for themselves what types of benefits they are approving for the more than 40 million seniors that rely on Medicare for their health services.

“It just says that Members of Congress will have to live by the same standards that they want to set for other people,” said Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “It won’t be fun, but let’s be honest about it.”

Under the Senate version of the Medicare bill, seniors would have to pay $695 in premiums and deductibles each year before getting government help with their prescriptions, and then only half of the cost of prescriptions would be paid until the total cost reaches $4,500.

At that point, Medicare recipients would have to pay the next $1,300 in prescription costs with no benefit before becoming eligible for a 90 percent discount under Medicare.

Dayton pointed out that Members of Congress currently not only avoid deductibles but also enjoy seamless prescription drug coverage no matter how much the total yearly cost of their prescriptions under their FEHBP insurance plans.

Senators on both sides of the aisle acknowledged the vote was meant more as a political message than as a real effort to change Members’ health benefits.

“The only problem with those kinds of amendments is that it makes the [American] people more cynical when they see a unanimous vote and then it’s dropped in conference,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted for the provision.

Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who along with Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) voted against the Dayton amendment, said he didn’t approve of even offering the amendment.

“I don’t do message amendments. That’s all it was,” Breaux said. “The whole focus should be on improving the Medicare drug benefit for Medicare beneficiaries, not lowering it for Members of Congress.”

But Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) disagreed, saying Democrats need to highlight the differences between Medicare benefits and the federal health plans of Members.

Nelson also noted that he was “perfectly willing” to take the lowered drug benefits, and he may have found the silver lining.

“My premiums should go down,” he said.