Reid: Blame Republicans for Medicare Drug Prices

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Senate Republicans aligned with big pharmaceutical and insurance companies are standing in the way of the government negotiating cheaper drug prices for Medicare recipients, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Thursday.

Reid, D-Nev., said he hasn't given up this year on passing such legislation, which fell four votes shy of the 60 needed to bring the bill up Wednesday for consideration.

"I'm sorry to be so partisan, but every Democrat voted to move forward on this," Reid said during a conference call from Washington, D.C.

The final vote was 55-42 because Reid changed his vote to "No" so he can have the measure reconsidered. Aside from Reid, 47 Democrats, six Republicans and two independents voted to proceed with the bill while 41 Republicans opposed it, including Nevada Sen. John Ensign.

Reid said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., who is recovering from a brain hemorrhage, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who missed the vote, would have backed the measure so he's just two short of bringing the measure back to the floor.

"We are making a little bit of progress," he said. "We are not going to give up."

Reid urged senior advocates to put pressure on Republicans blocking the measure.

"With the networking you do around the country, just focus on
Republicans who have not voted for this most logical thing to allow
Medicare to negotiate for lower prices," he said.

The Democratic leader said he won't lobby any more Republicans to change their vote.

"To be quite honest with you, that is not my job, to hustle Republicans. I've done my best. That's for someone else to do that," Reid said.

Asked by a reporter if he'd tried to bring Ensign around, he said, "Next question."

Ensign the bill "would put bureaucratic red tape between seniors and their doctors."

"Free markets help reduce costs by allowing competition. I voted against limiting choice and putting the government between doctors and patients," Ensign said. "Government price controls lead to shortages and diminished quality of goods and services. Doctors should determine what prescription drugs are best for seniors, not the federal government."

Nevada members of the American Association of Retired Persons are disappointed in Ensign's vote, said Carla Sloan, AARP state director.

"It is unfortunate that he decided to join with a minority of senators to block the bill from going forward instead of siding with nearly 90 percent of voting-age Americans," she said in a statement.

Under the current Medicare drug benefit, private insurance plans negotiate with drug makers over the price of medicine for their customers.

Reid contends the government could use its leverage to drive a better bargain than individual insurers, which would lower the cost of the program for taxpayers and seniors.

But Republicans countered that the program is costing much less than expected because it's the private sector, not the secretary of Health and Human Services, conducting the negotiations.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the program will cost about $265 billion less than anticipated over the coming decade.

"I doubt a single government program in modern history, let alone one this big and this important has ever, ever come in under budget," McConnell said Wednesday. "So it's a mystery why our Democratic friends would want to tamper with this Medicare drug benefit. If it isn't broke, why break it?"

Reid said he was irritated by opponents who refer to a study by the Congressional Budget Office that they claim shows drug prices wouldn't be lowered if the government negotiated them.

The report is misleading because it calculates only the fiscal impact on the federal budget, Reid said.

"The report indicates minimal savings to the nation but it would be a great savings to the people on Medicare. It would be less profits going to the HMOs."

"It's a sweetheart deal for pharmaceuticals, insurance companies and HMOs. ... It is not patients, it's profit-driven."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)