Senate candidates pitching ideas on prescriptions

Sunday, August 25, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan and Republican challenger Jim Talent have zeroed in on how the government should pay for older people's prescription drugs.

Both candidates for U.S. Senate are pitching their ideas on a Medicare drug benefit to older Missourians, who make up an estimated 13.5 percent of the state's 5.6 million residents. In a race as tightly contested as this one, support from such a large and influential group of voters could help make the difference.

Citizens age 65 and older are the nation's most active voters, said Steve Hahn, spokesman for AARP, the nation's biggest lobbying group for older Americans. Seniors vote at twice the rate of 18- to 25-year-olds, he said.

Prescription drug assistance "remains our top priority," Hahn said.

"There's a lot of anxiety over increasing health care costs," he added. "Employees are concerned about whether or not employer-sponsored benefits will be there for them, and they're worried about their folks -- when their parents can't pay for drugs they need, it's family members that do."

Besides the candidates, special interest groups on both sides of the issue are paying for grassroots campaigns aimed at seniors. The dominant groups on each side are drug manufacturers and organized labor.

At issue is legislation in Congress to pay for doctor-prescribed medication under Medicare, the government health insurance program for older and disabled Americans.

Before Congress left for a month-long recess, the House passed a $320 billion plan to provide a drug benefit through private insurers, paid for by Medicare. But the Senate failed to reach agreement and now is under pressure to approve legislation when lawmakers return next month.

Democrats, who control the Senate, opposed the plan passed by the Republican-controlled House because it relies on the private insurance industry, which they say is too unreliable. Democrats argue the GOP plan doesn't go far enough.

That is the gist of the difference between what Carnahan supports and what Talent is proposing.

Carnahan voted for two measures in the Senate, both of which would set up government-run drug coverage plans. She first backed a $594 billion, 10-year plan, but when that failed, she backed a scaled-down measure gearing most of the benefits to poor seniors and those with huge pharmacy bills.

Talent's plan, which he put forth Tuesday, is structured somewhat similarly but would rely on private insurers to administer a prescription drug benefit. He said his plan offers a compromise because he would have the government step in to offer any coverage not being offered in the private sector, although he called that scenario unlikely.

Lots of commercials

Missourians are being peppered by TV commercials about prescription drugs.

One, aired by the Missouri Democratic Party in support of Carnahan, focuses on a related issue: legislation she co-sponsored with other Democrats that would limit what drug companies spend on advertising to the amount of money they spend on research.

A second commercial, also in support of Carnahan, is being aired by the AFL-CIO labor union. This ad shows older people getting refills on their medication at a pharmacy.

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