By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - In a sure sign that delivering a prescription drug benefit for seniors will be a hot election year issue, the House Republicans outlined their plan.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and members of the Way and Means and Commerce committees who served as the plan's architects unveiled their proposal Wednesday. However, the Republicans didn't submit a bill with full legislative language.

"We intend to have legislative language soon, but it should be noted the Clinton administration doesn't have legislative language for its plan, either," a spokesman for Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) told BioWorld Today. Reps. Bill Archer (R-Texas), Thomas Bliley (R-Va.), Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) and Thomas developed the Republican approach for creating a prescription drug benefit for seniors.

The plan takes a market-based approach by providing 100 percent federal assistance for low-income seniors by funding the cost of their drug coverage premiums. The plan would phase out assistance for seniors with more income. The Republicans argue seniors won't have to pay full price for a drug because the health plan will negotiate discount rates.

In addition, the plan provides a stop-loss measure for seniors who have the highest out-of-pocket drug costs. The plan would set a monetary ceiling for out-of-pocket costs for every Medicare beneficiary. Medicare would cover costs beyond that ceiling.

The plan also would call on the government to share the costs of insuring the sickest seniors who consume the majority of prescription drugs - the costliest 3 percent of seniors will account for more than 15 percent of all drug costs in 2003. The provision is included to prevent private insurers from cherry-picking the healthiest seniors.

Chuck Ludlam, vice president for government relations for the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), said the Republican plan had some attractive features for the biotech industry, especially the stop-loss provision.

"Once there are more specifics, we will do our analysis on the plan," Ludlam said. "We certainly appreciate the obvious sensitivity they have for the impact Medicare legislation can have on research. The ultimate access issue is the absence of any product on the market to treat disease."

Coalition To Support Full Funding For Patent Office

For a decade, Congress routinely has dipped into fees collected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). However, a movement is afoot in Congress to bar such diversions.

Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.) introduced the Patent and Trademark Reauthorization Act, and in that legislation, he would end the diversion of revenue collected by PTO. In response to the legislation, BIO has organized a coalition of entrepreneurial associations to endorse the bill and urge all members of Congress to support H.R. 4034.

"There is no rationale whatsoever for taking those fees and using them for purposes unrelated to PTO," Ludlam said. "Everybody is putting more and more demands on the office to retain qualified staff. It is a key priority for us to support PTO."

Ludlam noted PTO needs to keep all of its funds in order to ensure the agency can provide services to inventors. BIO estimated Congress has diverted a half a billion dollars over the past decade. Those fees, instead, should be used to create better databases to enable patent examiners to check out prior art and keep abreast of patent developments.

"We organized this coalition because we believe it is the responsible thing to do," Ludlam said. "We are the constituencies of this agency, and they need our help."