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Popular Medicare drug program targeted in Utah GOP primary battle

May 30, 2012|By Noam N. Levey | This post has been updated
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)

WASHINGTON -- As veteran Republican lawmakers are forced to defend their support for any government program in the face of tea-party-backed primary challenges, even Medicare, the popular insurance program for the elderly and disabled, is becoming campaign fodder in the intra-party GOP war.

Utah Republican Senate candidate Dan Liljenquist has taken aim at six-term incumbent Sen. Orrin Hatch for supporting the creation of a drug benefit in Medicare in 2003, a top priority of then-President George W. Bush.

On Wednesday, the Liljenquist campaign sent an email calling out the high cost of the Part D program, which the campaign noted “Senator Hatch helped push through Congress.”

Medicare Part D, the largest expansion of Medicare benefits since the entitlement was created in 1965, has long rankled some conservatives, who were outraged that Republican leaders pushed through the costly program without any plan to pay for it.

But the drug benefit has become extremely popular with seniors. And the healthcare law that President Obama signed in 2010 expands the benefit by closing a hole in the Part D coverage known as the “doughnut hole,” (although Obama’s law, unlike the original legislation, offsets the cost of the expansion with other spending cuts and new taxes).

[Updated at 11:56 a.m., May 30: Hatch spokeswoman Evelyn Call called Liljenquist’s attacks “mystifying,” pointing to research suggesting that the Part D program has actually helped lower costs. “Seniors who have access to drug therapies are much less likely to end up in the hospital, and … hospital stays are very expensive,” Call said.]

Total spending on the drug benefit program topped $67 billion in 2011, according to the board of trustees overseeing Medicare.  Total Medicare spending exceeded $549 billion, nearly half of which was for hospital care.

A Liljenquist spokeswoman did not respond Wednesday morning to a question about whether Liljenquist favors abolishing the Medicare drug benefit.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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