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Dems Call for Closing the "Donut Hole" in Medicare Plan

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Last week, Democratic members of Congress and leaders of a group called Campaign for America's Future (CAF) held a press conference urging an end to the "donut hole" in prescription drug coverage for millions of seniors who receive Medicare.

A House Democratic report indicates that as many as 7 million seniors on the new Part D prescription drug coverage program, in addition to close to 6 million disabled Medicare Advantage plan recipients, may lose coverage for much-needed prescription drugs. According to the report, the Republican-authored Part D program forces middle-income seniors with drug costs exceeding $2,250 to pay nearly an additional $3,000 in out-of-pocket costs before the program will provide more coverage.

"The Bush administration pushed through this sham of a Medicare prescription drug benefit saying that it would help seniors and people with disabilities," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). "But, what we got was a plan that shifts costs to seniors and people with disabilities while padding the profit margins of drug and insurance companies."

CAF spokesperson Roger Hickey linked this massive hole in Medicare benefits to right-wing ideology. "This costly, confusing, and corrupt prescription drug plan written by and for the pharmaceutical and insurance companies exemplifies the conservative ideology of governance - outsource essential government services to corporate cronies and pass the bill on to the taxpayers," said Hickey.

Republicans, anxious to cut popular public programs like Medicare, viewed their Part D plan as a means of shifting the burden of paying for expensive prescription drugs to private individuals while benefiting the pharmaceuticals who have paid literally tens of millions of dollars hand over fist into their campaign funds. For the GOP, programs like Part D are a first step toward gutting Medicare benefits and privatizing the program in the guise providing more benefits.

So far their stealth campaign hasn't worked. Millions of seniors and other Medicare recipients and their families have grown angry over Republican policies. The Medicare issue alone has tightened a number of congressional races once considered safe Republican seats.

For example, Sen. Jim Talent (R-MO) has found that Medicare is a key issue for his mainly conservative state. Once considered a safe seat, the race in Missouri is now a statistical dead heat. While Talent helped block efforts to fix the donut hole, his Democratic opponent, state auditor Claire McCaskill is promoting a plan to make the program more flexible, guarantee coverage for all Medicare recipients, and reduce the price of prescription drugs.

So far, some Republicans have been able to count on additional funds from the pharmaceutical lobby, which has launched a $10 million ad campaign in vulnerable districts and states in addition to the $12.7 million it has injected into Republican campaign coffers for the 2006 congressional elections.

In exchange for this kind of financial support, the pharmaceutical lobby has gotten several important legislative maneuvers from the Republicans to protect their profit-making plan. Since the Part D prescription drug plan was passed in 2003, there have been three amendments introduced in the House of Representatives and one introduced in the Senate authorizing Medicare to use its bulk purchasing power to negotiate the price of drugs, thereby reducing the cost of the program and providing Congress with the funds to fill in the coverage gap. Republicans blocked all four amendments.

"Seniors in Michigan and around the country are stunned to learn they are falling into Medicare's donut hole - a gap in coverage that will have them scrambling to pay thousands of dollars for prescriptions they thought would be covered," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI). "It didn't have to be this way, but unfortunately, this Medicare prescription drug program was created for the drug companies and not for seniors."

CAF launched a national petition to reform the Republican-authored program. In about a dozen states, local groups last week sent donut holes along with thousands of messages to members of Congress to fix Medicare's prescription drug plan "donut hole." More information can be found at

--Joel Wendland can be reached at
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--Joel Wendland is editor of Political Affairs.
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