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WASHINGTON–There isn’t even a remote chance that Congress would act on the party’s “6 for 06″ agenda–which includes removing a ban on the government setting prices for prescription drugs under Part D of Medicare–in the first 100 hours of the next Congress, representatives of the Democratic leadership said at a briefing on the congressional healthcare agenda for the next Congress.

These officials, as well as a representative of Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, also made that Democratic “pay-go,” policies, that is, a plan to re-introduce a requirement that any new program be paid for by taking from an existing program, will limit congressional action on healthcare legislative priorities in the next Congress.

That will include action on all healthcare issues, including the reauthorization of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), a priority for both Democrats and Republicans in the next Congress.

Funding issues will cast a shadow on congressional action on healthcare issues, the speakers noted, including efforts to limit or end the so-called specifically, the so-called “donut hole” in the program.

That stems from the fact that the way the law authorizing the program is written, there is a gap in available coverage. Medicare pays 75% of initial drug costs up to $2,250 after a $250 deductible for most seniors. But then the program pays nothing until drug expenses reach $5,100, after which the government pays 95% of all costs. In Washington shorthand, this is called Medicare’s “donut hole.”

Mark Hayes, health policy director for Sen. Grassley, another participant, said that the poor, the people Democrats are most concerned about, aren’t affected by the “donut hole.”

Indeed, said a representative of Senate Majority Leader-designate Harry Reid, D-Nev., there is no consensus on how the Senate Finance Committee will deal with the price-setting issue, confirming that it would be too expensive to completely cover the donut hole, although Democrats will try to amend the program in some fashion to deal with problems in it, including open enrollment issues, etc.

It is also unclear whether Senate Democrats have the 60 votes needed to overcome a potential Republican filibuster even if the House supports ending the ban on government negotiation of drug prices under Part D of Medicare, said Kate Leone, Reid’s health policy adviser.

She also noted that Senate minority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has promised to filibuster Democratic efforts to mandate government involvement in the pricing of the prescription drugs under Medicare, and that the views of Sen. Olympia Snow, R-Maine, will play a key role in what Democrats do on the drug pricing issue.

Ms. Leone did confirm that Democrats in both the House and the Senate plan extensive oversight hearings on the prescription drug Program

At the same time, Bridgett Taylor, a member of the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said that besides examining the ban on government negotiating pricing of prescription contained in the legislation establishing a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, the E&C Committee would also looking into issue of critical importance to health insurers, the funding of the Medicare Advantage program under Medicare.

Leone and Taylor made their comments at a briefing on the potential healthcare agenda of the incoming 110th Congress sponsored by the Alliance for Health Reform.

They both made clear that the “6 for 06″ agenda was the campaign slogan of House Democrats, and won’t affect Senate action, for a number one, including the basic one that the Senate is a more deliberative body, Ms. Leone said. “The Senate doesn’t work that way,” she said.

Moreover, the Senate Finance Committee will act under “regular order,” as it considers healthcare legislation in the next Congress, she said, which means the panel will hold hearings before determining what legislation will be considered regarding the prescription drug program under Medicare.

Ms. Taylor made the same point, saying her boss, Rep. John Dingell, chairman-designate of the House Energy and Commerce panel, has made it clear he will consider all healthcare issues under “regular order,” which includes hearings.

She added that Dingell has made clear he will act “under an open process,” that is, even allowing amendments on the floor, a contrast to the majority Republican policy of limiting amendments and floor time for consideration of bills.

The “6 for 2006″ plans that Democrats in the House plan to undertake in the first “100-hours” of the incoming Congress called for dealing with such issues as making healthcare “more affordable” by getting the government more involved in the prescription drug program under Medicare, rollback tax subsidies to the energy industry, reform lobbying rules, raise the minimum wage, promote stem cell research and make college more accessible.


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