Washington Editor

WASHINGTON With midterm elections right around the corner and not much wiggle room in either the House or the Senate, insiders here suspect that a prescription drug benefit for seniors likely will pass this year in order to shore up the elderly voting block.

Just two days after President George Bush released his proposed $2.13 trillion budget for Fiscal Year 2003, Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, went before a somewhat hostile House Ways and Means Committee to pitch Bush’s plan for prescription drugs, among other things.

In total, Bush wants to increase the HHS budget by 9 percent, meaning Thompson’s department would receive $489 billion, of which $429 billion would go to Medicare and Medicaid.

But some Democrats get queasy at the idea of increasing the budget, since they don’t think the money exists to support it. In fact, Gerald Kleczka, a Democrat from Wisconsin, went so far as to blame part of the problem on Thompson, saying the secretary might be “jinxed.”

“There’s some bad luck following you around,” Kleczka told Thompson. “When you were governor of Wisconsin, there was a surplus, so you sent checks back, and the next year they were in a deficit. You’ve been up here a year, and there’s a surplus, so you sent checks back, and we’re going to be in a deficit.”

Kleczka continued, saying there are 30 million to 35 million seniors who need a drug benefit as part of a Medicare plan, not part of a welfare plan.

Thompson told the committee that the budget would “dedicate” $190 billion over 10 years for immediate targeted improvements and comprehensive Medicare modernization, including a subsidized prescription drug benefit, improved insurance protection and better private options for all beneficiaries.

“Last year the president proposed the creation of a new Medicare-endorsed prescription drug card program to reduce the cost of prescription drugs for seniors,” Thompson said. “This year, HHS will continue working to implement the drug card, which will give beneficiaries immediate access to manufacturer discounts on their medicines and other valuable pharmacy services. The president is absolutely committed to providing immediate assistance to seniors who currently have to pay for prescription drugs.”

But Pete Stark, a Democrat from California, said the Bush budget “is like much of what we’ve seen out of the administration with regard to domestic spending priorities: It is long on rhetoric and short on policy and dollars to get the job done.”

Stark said $190 billion over 10 years for a Medicare prescription drug benefit doesn’t come close to providing the necessary funding.

“To create a meaningful prescription drug benefit one that provides each Medicare beneficiary with even a decent prescription drug benefit would probably cost at least $500 billion over that time frame,” he said.

Of the $190 billion that could be allocated from Bush, Stark said $77 billion is optional money for individual states should they choose to expand Medicaid coverage to poorer seniors.

The Bush plan also includes a raise in funding to stabilize and increase choice in the Medicare-Choice program by aligning payment rates more closely with overall Medicare spending and paying incentives for new types of plans to participate. More than 500,000 seniors lost coverage last year because Medicare-Choice plans left the Medicare program and today, about 5 million seniors receive coverage through the plan.

Thompson said because Medicare-Choice provides access to drug coverage and other innovative benefits, it is an option that must be preserved.

Kleczka felt differently, saying: “I think it is about time we accept that Medicare-Choice is a failed plan. The program did not work; let’s admit it and move on.”