By Kim Coghill

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - President Bush's temporary prescription drug plan received a cool reception on Capitol Hill as congressmen on both sides of the aisle criticized the $48 billion proposal, saying it will help only a fraction of Medicare beneficiaries.

Not only that, Carl Feldbaum, president of Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), in a prepared statement said there is a concern that this initial proposal will impede comprehensive Medicare reform and create an inconsistent patchwork of drug coverage initiatives that vary from state to state.

"If it is the only measure that is adopted this year, which is clearly not the president's intention, we believe it would have the possibility of impeding larger Medicare reform," Sharon Cohen, BIO's vice president of health policy, told BioWorld Today. "It would provide some benefits, but the political dynamics of getting everybody back to the table again would be tough."

And given the 50-50 split in the Senate, Cohen said bipartisan support is becoming increasingly necessary. "There has not been bipartisan support for the so-called block-grant solution," she said.

Bush's four-year plan, known as "Helping Hand," would create block grants for states with drug subsidy programs, dispensing $12 billion annually for low-income Medicare patients. Fewer than half the states have subsidy programs in place.

One study estimates that the proposal would eventually help fewer than one in 20 of the 37 percent of all seniors who lack prescription drug insurance coverage, Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) said in a prepared statement. "Based on actual state experiences, we estimate that the Bush proposal would eventually enroll approximately 700,000 to 900,000 (about 5 percent) of all Medicare beneficiaries without prescription drug coverage," Allen's statement said.

The Bush administration is touting Helping Hand as an immediate solution to help seniors while Congress develops a permanent program.

The program would pay the entire premium for drug coverage for Americans 65 and older with incomes up to $11,600, and it would pay half for those with incomes up to $15,000. Also, it would provide catastrophic coverage for all Medicare patients if their annual drug costs exceed $6,000.

"We do applaud the president. He made a campaign commitment to address early on the issue of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries," Cohen said. "This proposal makes good on that promise and we give him high marks for trying to move forward on that issue. We also give him high marks for including the catastrophic coverage. That's very good news because it provides financial protection for seniors."

Ideally, Cohen said BIO would support a comprehensive prescription drug plan that allows for competition and private-sector solutions to providing coverage.