Four years ago, a key Senate panel fell just two votes short of passing an amendment offered by U.S. Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Bill Nelson to stop prescription drug makers from charging the Medicare program higher prices for prescriptions issued to some of our nation's poorest seniors.
That 13-10 vote against the measure was in the fall of 2009. But fast forward four years.
Last week, President Obama unveiled his budget plan that contains a similar proposal aimed at reducing the amount Medicare pays drug companies for prescription medications of some nine-million, low-income seniors who also qualify for Medicaid.
And today, 19 U.S. senators joined to file legislation to end the practice of drug companies being able to charge more for prescriptions for so-called "dual-eligible" beneficiaries who qualify for both Medicaid and Medicare. They get medical coverage from Medicaid because of low income, but also qualify for Medicare because they're 65 or older, or disabled.
Leading the lawmakers is Rockefeller (D-WV), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee and of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Health, which has jurisdiction over the bill. With him again is Nelson, a Florida Democrat and fellow member of both the Finance and Commerce Committees.
"This is about saving taxpayers a lot of money by stopping what's really an unnecessary corporate windfall," Nelson said. "As we're looking for ways to reduce the deficit, this would save us about $14 billion a year."
The legislation drew immediate support from senior advocacy groups such as AARP.
"AARP understands the important need to spend Medicare dollars wisely and to reduce the nation's spending on health care generally," Joyce Rogers, senior vice president of government affairs, wrote in a public letter of endorsement to Rockefeller. "However, AARP wants to ensure that Congress does not simply ask seniors to pay more or enact harmful cuts to Medicare benefits. Consequently, AARP is encouraged by your legislation, which instead focuses on constructively reducing costs, saving as much as $141 billion over the next ten years without negatively impacting Medicare Part D benefits."
When Congress first created the Medicare prescription drug program a decade ago, it allowed drug manufacturers to be reimbursed a higher price for Medicare beneficiaries' prescriptions - instead of the discounted price or rebates they give to Medicaid, which still covers the medical care of low-income seniors who qualify for both insurance programs.
Nelson said if this legislation passes it would save taxpayers an estimated $140 billion over 10 years. The savings could be used to reduce the deficit, he said.