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House OKs bill on cost of drugs

The measure requiring officials to negotiate prices isn't a hit with the Senate or Bush, but it could shape debate.

January 13, 2007|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Defying a threatened presidential veto, the House approved a bill Friday to require federal officials to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices for the 23 million senior citizens who have signed up for Medicare's prescription drug coverage.

Although the bill is unlikely to become law, it is likely to help shape the debate that could result in a more limited measure that allows some dickering between the government and the pharmaceutical industry over drug costs.

Supporters of such efforts argue that the huge scale of the Medicare program would result in larger discounts for prescriptions than private insurers can obtain.

At the least, the House bill signals a shift in Washington from President Bush's view that private enterprise and individual citizens should play the most prominent role in the decisions that determine healthcare costs.

The legislation passed 255 to 170, with 24 Republicans joining 231 Democrats in backing it. All those voting against it were Republicans.

The bill would repeal a ban on letting the government negotiate with manufacturers for lower prices -- a provision that was part of the GOP-sponsored 2003 measure that created the prescription drug program.

Under the House bill, the secretary of Health and Human Services would be required to seek the best prescription-drug prices for Medicare participants.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called the bill "a very important first step in making prescription drugs more affordable."

Drug companies strongly opposed the legislation, which is one of the measures that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) promised that Democrats would enact within the first 100 working hours after taking control of the House. Several companies bought full-page newspaper ads urging Congress not to tinker with the Medicare benefit.

"Give it a chance," said the ads. "It's working."

The White House agrees with the industry.

"We have a Medicare prescription drug reform that has been saving people significant amounts of money; it is effective," White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said Friday. "If this bill is presented to the president, he will veto it."

The bill's Senate chances appear slim.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has said he favors a bill that would allow but not order federal haggling with pharmaceutical companies.

And the committee's ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said the House bill could "block access to drugs that a senior might need, make it harder to get your medicine at the local pharmacy, and result in higher drug prices for younger people."

But Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) made clear she would push for some version of the House bill. "Now is the time for the Senate ... to harness the buying power of millions of seniors to give them a better value for their healthcare dollar."

The Medicare drug benefit narrowly passed the GOPcontrolled Congress in 2003 and was promoted by Bush during his reelection campaign as a key accomplishment.

The program's rollout last year had problems, but the benefit has proved popular among seniors.

Polls show that an overwhelming majority of beneficiaries support having Medicare negotiate prices.

Currently, private insurers negotiate with the drug industry and offer various plans; seniors pick the one that suits them best.

In Friday's House debate, Republicans argued that requiring federal officials to negotiate drug prices would foist government controls onto pharmaceutical companies.

They also disputed the assertion that the process would lower drug prices.

"The measure before us will lead to higher prices and, frankly, fewer choices for American seniors," said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

Democrats countered that the current program benefited the drug industry more than it benefited seniors.

"Today's bill is a genuine prescription for lower prices that should have been filled long ago," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas).

Times staff writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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