Medicare Bill Passes

In Washington Friday, House Democrats made good on an election pledge concerning Medicare. They passed a bill repealing part of Medicare law that bars the government from negotiating directly with drug makers for lower prices. But many Democrats--including some in the leadership--acknowledged that the vote was largely symbolic. As Todd Zwillich reports a lot more work needs to be done before the bill can deliver lower drug prices.

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Ever since 200 when Congress created Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit Democrats have complained about the non-interference clause. That's the name for the part of the law that prevents the government from bargaining with pharmaceutical companies.So Friday...they repealed it. Congressman Gene Green voted for the bill.

"The law put the pharmaceutical industry ahead of our seniors. It put the health insurance industry ahead of our seniors. The bill will correct those mistakes."

Still many other Democrats acknowledge the bill was little more than a first step. New York Democrat, chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over medicare called the vote ceremonial.The bill repeals the non-interference clause. But it didn't touch other parts of the law that also keep Medicare from getting the low drug prices enjoyed by say the Veterans Administration.

The Congressional Budget office concluded this week the bill would have a negligible effect on Medicare prices. Austin native Mark McClellan served 2 and a half years as President Bush's Medicare chief. He was on Capitol Hill arguing against the bill. He says without limiting drug choices like the VA does the government can't walk away from the bargaining table.

"To negotiate further reductions in prices means you're going to have to put further restrictions on access to drugs, new restriction on access to pharmacies."

Crafting a plan that actually cuts drug prices would take some complicated maneuvering. More complicated than Democrats have time for during their showcase first 100 hours in power.

Still Green argued it was right to start somewhere.

"Ninety-two percent of Americans agree that we should take off the handcuffs that have been restraining the medicare program and give it a chance to achieve greater discounts"

President Bush has pledged to veto the bill. First it has to go to the Senate...which is expected to take a much slower approach on drug costs.

For Houston Public Radio, I'm Todd Zwillich on Capitol Hill

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