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Senate GOP Press Conference Re: Passage of Medicare Bill

Location: Washington, DC


SEN. FRIST: Good morning. It was a few hours ago, late last night or, better, early this morning, that the United States Senate, acting in a bipartisan say, moved our country in a direction that will give a better life and real health care security for our seniors. With an overwhelming vote in the United States Senate of 76 to 21, we passed the most sweeping change in health policy in a generation. We are one step closer to a day when seniors and individuals with disabilities will no longer anticipate a trip to the pharmacy with dread. We're closer to a new level of health care security for 40 million seniors and individuals with disabilities. We're closer to that new era for Medicare that offers better care for today's seniors and for those generations to come.

The legislation is complex. And let us not overlook the fact that there are still a number of hurdles to overcome. As all of you know, we'll be going go conference here shortly, where we will marry -- where we will merge the House bill and the Senate bill, so that we will have a bill that the president can strongly support and sign to deliver that health care security for seniors.

There is no denying that years of debate and years of promises have led to this historic bill being passed last night. The United States, indeed, by passing this legislation is in the process of delivering on the promise of better Medicare with prescription drug coverage.

This morning's vote would not have been possible without the strong leadership of President Bush, without people on both sides of the aisle working together, and especially, without the efforts of the two managers, Senators Grassley and Baucus, as well as the Republican leadership that you see before you today.

At this juncture, I'd like to turn the presentation over to someone who did a -- really, carried out a monumental task yesterday in terms of whipping the votes to make sure that the process did work in an orderly, smooth fashion in which it did, our whip, Senator Mitch McConnell.

SEN. MCCONNELL: Well, thank you, Leader, and I particularly want to commend you as not only the only physician in the Senate, but as the leader of the majority. This has to be a proud day for you, and we thank you so much for the -- not only your leadership skills, but the expertise that you brought to this whole matter, which was invaluable.

And we're not quite there yet, but we told the people of America last November that if they would give us the chance to lead the Senate, we would quit the bickering and we would actually accomplish great things. You're familiar with the litany of achievements this year. We actually got a budget, unlike last year. We went back and passed last year's appropriation bills that were not done. And we were able to tackle this important, unanswered need on a bipartisan basis. Seventy-six to 21 is not exactly a cliffhanger. And there was excellent cooperation across party lines to get this important measure out of the Senate.

So, as the majority, we're particularly proud that this is a Congress that's got a reputation for actually accomplishing things rather than just bickering and never getting anywhere. So, it's a proud day for us, and for that matter, for the entire Senate. We still have a big challenge ahead with the conference. And we all look forward to a final product that can be enthusiastically supported by an equally large majority, if not larger, here in the Senate.

Thank you.

SEN. SNOWE: Well, this is landmark legislation that's resulted in a landmark victory. Obviously, it's been a long road that has taken us to this day, but it's been a much longer road, an arduous journey, for our nation's seniors.

A week of this magnitude simply could not occur without leadership. And first, obviously, the president, who called upon the Congress to pass this legislation this year and this summer. And most especially, our Senate majority leader, who certainly performed a yeoman's effort in melding the political and the policy differences, being a steady presence in force, to make it happen with a workable timetable, as well.

To Chairman Grassley, who has been tireless and tenacious throughout this process and the onset of developing the idea for a prescription drug benefit and understanding the need for bipartisan compromise, and to Senator Baucus, who -- with his early efforts to forge the political divide that ushered in this landmark legislation.

And I also salute the colleagues who were originally part of the tripartisan plan -- Senator Hatch and Senator Breaux and Senator Jeffords worked with Chairman Grassley and me over the last few years -- upon which this bill ultimately was predicated.

But today we have crossed the Rubicon on prescription drugs, and with this monumental step, where seniors are closer to having a future that's free of broken promises and unfulfilled pledges and partisan bickering that has stood between them and the drug coverage that's so important to their well-being.

This policy was not developed in a vacuum. It was an evolution -- evolutionary process that resulted in a revolutionary change to the Medicare program. Obviously, it was a healthy competition of ideas that forged this legislation. In a Senate that's 51-49, obviously concessions have to be made when you're developing the single greatest domestic investment ever created and ultimately the most single -- singular enhancement of the Medicare program in 38 years. So it can't be all "my way or -- you know, or nothing" in this process. It ultimately had to be developed as a result of bipartisan compromise.

Finally, we embraced certain tenets at the outset. One was obviously having universal coverage; having comprehensive programs, targeted to the most -- those in need, and ultimately producing savings; preserving the traditional fee-for-service, but at the same time allowing seniors -- for options in the program, with a private delivery mechanism that allows them to choose among plans to tailor to their needs; but at the same understanding that we have to create a balance between the tested, in the fee-for-service, and the new program and the private delivery system by maintaining an equal drug benefit among all of the options that seniors can choose from.

Ultimately, we hope to preserve these programs and these principles. We're going to be threading a needle in the House and Senate conference, in the final analysis, but I think that today we have made a major step forward.

I think this will be recorded as a critical moment in the Senate's history, along with the creation of the Medicare program and Social Security.

SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R-VA): Good morning. This is a monumental day, historic day, in which the House and the Senate has passed legislation that means a great deal to all of us, to our parents, our grandparents, and future generations.

This has been led most ably in the Senate by our leader, Bill Frist. It is not just by design that this was S. 1, determining for all of us the prioritization. He kept us rolling and rolling and rolling to get it done, and he's done a tremendous job with his leadership, his expertise, and his knowledge in a great team effort, as well as President Bush's leadership as well.

We have always been emphasizing, since regaining the majority in the Senate, action, positive, constructive action that has a good impact, a tangible impact in benefitting the lives of people across America, rather than what we've seen in past years, on this issue in particular, of a prescription drug plan and options for seniors and strengthening Medicare, what we see is action, as opposed to blame and excuses and partisan, petty obstructionism. And so we're on the road to victory for the people of America.

And I will also say that we always, when we're talking about a prescription drug plan, will always have in mind the key witness being, let's say, an elderly frail woman wrapped up in a sweater, in a cold place and residence, eating meager meals, taking half doses of medicine to keep her alive and improve her quality of life. This measure that we passed here today, for people like that who we all have in our minds, who cannot, in some cases, determine whether they can eat a nutritious meal versus pay for prescription drugs, those individuals across our country will now have a prescription drug plan that they can choose from. And for those who like whatever plan they have now, and have that personal relationship with their physician, like my mother did as she was going through breast cancer surgery just a little over a year ago, they'll not have to leave that personal, very important relationship with their physician to get a prescription drug plan, if that's what they so desire.

So, I congratulate, first and foremost, Leader Frist for his tremendous, outstanding leadership; Mitch McConnell for keeping our forces together; Olympia Snowe for her vision for many, many years; and, of course, our president and the Bush administration. But most of all, this is a great day for the people of America. And as some of the details get worked out in the weeks and months to come, you'll see the people of America saying the Republicans in the Senate and the House and the White House are acting in the best interest of the American people, and I think that will help us in the 2004 elections, as well.

Thank you all.

SEN. FRIST: Good. George, we'll be able to take some questions.

Let me just comment, the posterboard behind says: "Prescriptions, Better Medicare Choice," and I think that really does show what we accomplished last night in passing this legislation after two weeks of debating, of negotiating, of setting out principles, of working on the shoulders of many past bills; the work done in the House of Representatives; Senator Snow mentioned the tripartisan plan from last year; even building on the bipartisan commission from five years ago. And it really is a culmination. So, when you hear words like "historic day" or a "landmark day," we say that recognizing that we have lots of steps to take before we see the final product. But if we're looking, for the first time in history -- for the first time in history, seniors having access of prescription drugs through Medicare, it is a great accomplishment.

The Medicare -- then the better Medicare, the whole aspect of getting Medicare, for the first time in history, seniors having access to the sort of plans that best suit their individual needs, and then the choice, where seniors don't have to do anything different; they can keep exactly what they have today. This is a voluntary program. Thus, seniors can have that security, take advantage of that better Medicare with prescription drugs, or keep what they have today with prescription drugs.

So, I'm very pleased. I recognize we have lots of challenges before us. As George -- Senator Allen mentioned, what we're trying to do in our style is to be very mission-driven. And the mission is to move America forward, and this does just that -- is to do it in a way that is values-based, and those values are civility -- and although it's tough at negotiating, the strong bipartisan support represents a lot of negotiation that occurred both on the floor and in committee and before, the values of civility and trust, the many relationships that we depended upon to bring this in a bipartisan way where, yes, there were 10 or 11 Republicans who didn't vote for it and -- but there were 10 or 11 Democrats who didn't vote for it -- an overwhelming majority.

And the last point, action-driven.

If you look at what we've done in the last five months, whether it's on the budget, whether it's on the tax package or the growth package, or the 11 of the 13 appropriation bills or now delivering on Medicare, this Congress is going to be action-driven, driven for solutions.


Q Senator, given the division in the House, how confident are you that you will be able to reconcile the differences? And would you think you'll be able to do it before the August recess?

SEN. FRIST: I am absolutely -- I'm very confident in terms of being able to marry the House bill and the Senate bill. And I say that because both for the first time offer prescription drugs, both do it in a way that use the private sector in partnership with the government, and both do it through offering unprecedented choice. And those three principles are common to both bills, and therefore I'm confident it can be done.

In terms of overall timing, although, as most of you know, three months ago I said we were going to spend these two weeks, that we were going to finish this by July the 4th, that was the agenda that we set out -- and because Democrats and Republicans united behind that goal of moving America forward, we, as the United States Senate -- not just Republicans, but we, as the United States Senate -- lived up to that.

At this juncture, we've got to get this right. We've got to -- we can't afford to make mistakes or miss any details. We've got to take the very best policies. So at this juncture, unlike saying we were going to finish this step before July 4th, we're going to spend whatever time it takes to marry those two policies in a way that really will -- really will -- give health care security to seniors in a sustainable way, long-term.

Q Senator, how significant was that -- the vote on means- testing? And with the Senate on record overwhelmingly endorsing the idea, it ended up being stripped out. The House has voted to have means-testing. How significant is that, and do you think it will come back in conference?

SEN. FRIST: I think that the overwhelming majority of United States senators endorsed means-testing last night in a vote on the floor of the United States Senate reflects both the will of the Senate, reflected in the numbers. And when you couple that with the means-testing in the House bill, I would suspect that there will be an element of means-testing in the final bill.

The means-testing in the House I haven't studied to see exactly how that was carried out, but it was very clear, through votes on the floor of the United States Senate, what -- where senators stand.


Q Are you confident that insurance companies will want to offer drug-only insurance policies, and has any company to date committed to do so?

SEN. FRIST: I cannot -- will not, just because I haven't talked with individual companies and made them offers, as to whether or not they're going to participate.

I think the goal of sharing risk, which is to me very important if we look at market-based competition, is something that the private markets are very accustom to. It's something that government is not very accustom to. And our challenge now is to marry the public and the private sectors in a way that will be sufficiently attractive to the private sector so that we can capture those deficiencies, those dynamics, the responsiveness, the flexibility that allows the rapid assimilation of new drugs, new technology, new ways of delivering health care.

So it's absolutely critical that we do make the private sector element with private plan participation work. That will be the challenge before us. A number have come forward and said that they are very interested in doing so. And I think that's something we'll study over the next month. I personally am very confident that we will be able to develop these public/private partnerships in a way that capture the dynamism of the marketplace, and at the same time, give the security that we know that the federal government and government has and will continue to put forth.

Q On the timing -- (off mike) -- you're saying now that you want to get it right and take the extra time and you may very well go into the fall.

SEN. FRIST: That's right. That's exactly correct. Whatever time it takes. I would love to finish it in two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, and the August recess. This will be the last real shot to get this perfect. And we're talking about people's lives; we're talking about the most intimate aspects of their lives, and that's their health care. So we will spend whatever time it takes, working together, again, just in the same style that we've demonstrated on the floor, in a bipartisan way, working together to get it right. And therefore, from my standpoint -- and again, I haven't talked with the House members; but I would think that they would think the same -- we are not going to be held by any artificial deadlines, we'll get the policy right -- (inaudible) -- how long that will take.

Q And on the issue of premium support, the actuary released the numbers last night which showed, you know, potentially the premiums for their fee-for-service are going to go up 25 percent under the House bill. Is that an important issue? (Off mike) -- isn't in the Senate bill.

SEN. FRIST: The premium support model -- the bills are very similar in terms of principle and accomplishing goals, and in mechanism. Their emphasis is more on premium support than our more -- I would argue, more purely competitive model.

In the last two weeks, to be honest, I have not followed the specifics of the House bill or the actuarial valuation of premium support, just because we've been focusing on the bill that came out of the United States Senate. Once we're in conference, we'll be willing -- not willing, but we'll necessarily look at that. I mean, I can't predict what the model will be in the final outcome of the bill.

Q Senator Frist, the House also added a tax bill, a medical savings account, health savings account bill to this bill. Is that the Senate might be inclined to look at as part of the package?

SEN. FRIST: Well, the way the question was posed, the "medical savings account or health savings account," really demonstrates we have a long way to go, as you know. And I know you know, but I don't think most of even my colleagues know the difference between what the House is doing in medical savings account and the health savings account. Very, very different.

We did not address the tax issues in our bill at all. We did not address health savings accounts at all. I personally am a great believer in health savings accounts. I think it has both short-term, mid-term and long-term implications that are huge and can really change the way we finance health care long term for this generation and the next generations. We have not addressed it at all in the United States Senate. I'm sure we'll talk about it in the conference, but can't predict whether or not they'll be incorporated or not.

Q Thank you, Senator.

SEN. FRIST: Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.

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