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Democrats Target Medicare Law

In the continuing partisan war of words over Medicare prescription drug reform, Senate Democrats plan to introduce of flurry of bills today designed to exempt their states from having to play host to a controversial pilot program authorized by the new law.

“It’s our effort to stop the privatization of Medicare,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) declared in an interview Tuesday.

Under the new Medicare law, the Department of Health and Human Services, starting in 2010, can designate six sites around the country to serve as proving grounds for Republican proposals to provide health care vouchers for private insurance to eligible Medicare beneficiaries.

“If they want these pilot programs, they should only go to those states where the Senators voted for this bill,” said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Clinton and at least six other Democrats will announce their hopes to exclude their states from the pilot program at a press conference today. At least a dozen other Democrats plan to offer similar bills in the coming days, said one Senate Democratic aide.

Democrats may try to attach the bills to unrelated measures that come to the Senate floor or to any health care legislation that moves this year, according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who is leading today’s effort.

Stabenow insisted that the pilot program would turn Medicare “from a defined benefit into a defined contribution” from the government.

But Republicans scoffed at the Democratic strategy as a publicity stunt and as meaningless because the pilot program will not even begin for another six years.

“Does that mean Republicans should have votes now to exempt their states from John Kerry’s tax increases that would become law should he ever become president?” said one senior Senate GOP aide, referencing the Massachusetts Senator who is currently the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. “These are joke bills on provisions that don’t come to pass until long after the [prescription] benefit has been implemented.”

The GOP aide added: “This is just another in a long effort of failed strategic ideas from the minority. … There’s a difference between voting on message amendments and something actually becoming law.”

Under the pilot program, those eligible for Medicare benefits would be given a choice of receiving a health care voucher or staying with traditional Medicare.

Stabenow said that since older and sicker people will likely choose to stay with Medicare while healthier individuals will opt for private plans, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that Medicare premiums could rise as much as 25 percent for those who choose to stay on the government-run plan.

“The success of Medicare has come from spreading the risk between the healthy and the sick,” Stabenow said.

Plus, seniors who choose the voucher option could find themselves paying more out of pocket as well if private health insurance premiums rise above the amount of the voucher.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), charged that the pilot program “breaks the fundamental promise of Medicare, replaces a guarantee of quality health care with increased premiums, and leaves seniors and people with disabilities to fend for themselves in the market.”

The pilot program represents the heart of Democratic opposition to the new Medicare prescription drug law because they say it is the first step in “privatizing” Medicare, or forcing Medicare to compete with privately-run insurance plans — a proposal many Republicans supported as a way to bring down the cost of the entitlement program.

Originally, many House GOP conservatives demanded that all of Medicare be changed to directly compete with private plans, but during negotiations on the bill last year, it was scaled back to a pilot program, which made it easier for some Democrats and moderate Republicans to swallow.

The fight over the pilot program is an extension of the larger Democratic attack on the Medicare law, which Democrats are undertaking as a way of undermining President Bush’s ability to use the measure as an election-year accomplishment.

Part of that effort included convincing the General Accounting Office to investigate whether a $22 million Medicare prescription drug ad campaign started by HHS violates laws prohibiting government agencies from distributing propaganda.

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