By Lisa Seachrist

Washington Editor

WASHINGTON - In spring, Congress was awash in plans to provide a prescription drug benefit to senior citizens.

By July, those plans had been eclipsed by the notion of a tax cut bill in excess of $700 billion. President Clinton, however, has stated in no uncertain terms such a tax bill would be vetoed. Congress is once again turning its attention to the possibility of establishing a prescription drug benefit for senior citizens dependent on Medicare.

Sen. William Roth (R-Del.), Sen. James Jeffords (R-Vt.) and Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R-Fla.) all have announced their intention to introduce bills that would modernize Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. Currently, Medicare covers hospital and doctors visits, leaving many seniors to pay for prescription drugs on their own.

Jeffords noted in a press release, "Today, drugs are just as important, and in many cases more important, than hospital visits."

With three bills ready to be introduced, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) has established principles by which to judge all current and future proposals to modernize medicine.

"One of the things that we all recognize is that there is a problem for senior citizens accessing pharmaceutical and biotechnology products," said Nancy Bradish Myers, director of federal government relations for BIO. "The question becomes how do we solve this problem. We really do think if you are going to do it, you need to do it well and that means moving it into the private sector."

Myers noted BIO believes it is necessary to preserve patient choice in developing a prescription drug benefit. As a result, the organization favors market-oriented private sector approaches that avoid price controls. The Clinton administration's proposal calls for pharmacy benefits managers to bid for the right to serve as the pharmacy provider for various regions in the country. Myers praised the attempt to establish market pressures, but noted the program wouldn't give patients any choice of providers.

In addition to choice, BIO's outline of its principles calls for any legislation to prioritize federal assistance toward beneficiaries with the greatest economic and medical need. In order to do this, BIO recommends providing affordable "stop-loss" coverage to protect the financial security of the sickest and neediest Medicare beneficiaries. In addition, BIO calls for any federal subsidies to be targeted to low-income beneficiaries using market-oriented private sector approaches.

BIO remains vehemently opposed to any federal price controls on medication. Myers noted that over the past couple of years Congress has done everything it could to facilitate getting products to patients - from FDA reform to the orphan drug tax credit. A Medicare drug benefit that inadequately compensates for new, innovative drugs will stymie new innovation, she said.

"We are going to be very sensitive to what is the impact of any legislation on the future of drug discovery," Myers said. "We also want to make sure that any drugs and biologics currently covered under Medicare will continue to be covered. We need to make sure the prescription drug benefit augments rather than supplants current coverage."

Finally, BIO calls for any new Medicare proposal to ensure drug coverage for Medicare beneficiaries doesn't jeopardize the financial security of the program in the long run.