Kennedy slams GOP Medicare prescription drug plans

WASHINGTON — Sen. Edward M. Kennedy attacked Republican Medicare prescription drug proposals Tuesday, charging they were not generous enough to meet seniors’ drug needs.

The president’s proposal "doesn’t even pass the laugh test," Kennedy said. As for the House Republican plan unveiled Monday, the Massachusetts Democrat said "it doesn’t work in terms of substance and in terms of the delivery mechanism, it fails."

The remarks were made after a speech in which Kennedy proposed 12 programs intended to further his longtime goal of universal health coverage.

"The only thing worse than not passing a Medicare prescription drug reform would be to pass a phony program that undermines the coverage that already exists," Kennedy said.

Kennedy supports a Senate bill that would cost $500 billion, while the House Republican bill before the Ways and Means Committee would tally $350 billion.

Apart from cost, a major difference between the GOP and Democrat plans is how the drugs would be delivered to Medicare beneficiaries. Republicans would have patients buy coverage from HMOs or private insurance companies, while Democrats would cover the drugs directly as part of the existing Medicare program.

"The benefit package is just going to be structured by the insurance company," Kennedy said of the Republican plan. "It’s not a serious effort."

Republicans and Democrats also differ on deductibles, monthly premiums and coverage limits.

Kennedy’s proposal was dismissed by Christin Tinsworth, a GOP staffer for the House Ways and Means Committee.

"We’ve constructed a generous, reasonable and responsible plan to provide help for seniors with their prescription drug costs," Tinsworth said. "Right now, seniors aren’t getting any help. We’re saying they should get help. We’ve constructed this bill within the $350 billion allocated to us in House budget resolution. (The Democrats) are just kind of doing whatever suits them."

House Democrats have proposed an $800 billion prescription drug plan, which Tinsworth called "a pie-in-the-sky press release proposal."

Kennedy was optimistic that Senate and House Democrats could easily work out the $300 billion that separate their plans.

"The differences between the Democrats in the House and Senate could be worked out in about half an hour or 45 minutes," he said.

During his speech at the National Press Club, Kennedy proposed measures aimed at reducing the number of uninsured Americans. He also proposed requiring any business employing more than 100 people to offer health insurance equal to the coverage that members of Congress and the president receive.

Kennedy also proposed or expressed support for the following measures:

— Expanding eligibility in the Children’s Health Insurance Program to the parents of low-income children.
— Working on mental-health parity legislation.
— Making Medicaid available to non-poor families.
— Requiring medical providers to adopt electronic bill processing.
— Adding funds for diabetes and stroke research.
— Authorizing the FDA to further regulate the sale and advertisement of tobacco products.
— Making it harder for pharmaceutical firms to keep generic competitors off the market.
— Toughening regulations on direct-to-consumer prescription drug advertising.
— Creating a federal government index of leading "family health" indicators, including health coverage, child poverty and high school graduation rates.
© 2002, McClatchy/Tribune Information