Douglas supports Medicare drug bill

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas supports the Medicare drug bill now moving through Congress. His staff says the legislation will save Vermont $3 million in its first year alone.

But some Democratic state senators and consumer advocates warn that the bill will dilute prescription drug benefits that Vermont seniors have now.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) Besides providing prescription drug benefits, the Medicare bill also sends $80 million to Vermont hospitals in the form of higher federal payment. The hospital money was a key selling point for the Douglas Administration.

Jason Gibbs is a spokesman for Douglas, who is away at a Republican governor’s conference in Florida.

(Gibbs) Governor Douglas believes that this bill is real progress that will benefit millions of American seniors who have waited far too long for affordable drug coverage.

(Dillon) But consumer advocates and several leading Democrats in the state Senate warn that the legislation is a dangerous step that will weaken Vermont’s own prescription drug benefit program.

Senator Peter Welch from Windsor County is the Senate President Pro Tem.

(Welch) First, it will interfere with the benefit program that we already have in Vermont for seniors, so 5,000 Medicare beneficiaries will lose benefits that they have now. Nearly 25,000 Medicaid beneficiaries will have to pay more under the federal program than they pay under the state programs.

(Dillon) Welch says the legislation also guts the ability of the state to negotiate lower prices from drug companies.

But even more dangerous, in Welch’s view, is that the bill sets up a two-tiered system that he predicts will eventually weaken the entire Medicare program.

(Welch) What will happen is that the seniors who are healthy will go into the private pay, lower cost HMO system. And the people who are sick are going to be in the taxpayer supported and premium supported system, so you’ll have a two-tiered system where the sick are in one and the healthy are in the other. And it’s just a disaster for the long term concept of Medicare.

(Dillon) But Douglas’s spokesman says the governor agrees with Senator Jim Jeffords and AARP – the powerful senior’s lobby – that the legislation is good on balance for Vermont.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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