MOULTRIE -- Although Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., voted for the Medicare prescription drug reform bill before the Senate Tuesday, it wasn't without reservations.
"Following my review of the conference report ... I can't help but feel that this is not the best we could do," Chambliss said. "I feel like we missed the mark on trying to ensure Medicare's solvency. While we are trying to ensure that prescription drug coverage is provided for those seniors who need them, we should also ensure that future generations are not overburdened by the costs of this expanded entitlement program."
Chambliss, a Moultrian who took office in January, pointed to the lack of cost controls in the bill.
"Attempts to cap the bill's cost have been diluted," he said. "Instead of putting cost containment provisions in the legislation, there is a vague transfer of power from today's lawmakers to future lawmakers to handle the cost when it becomes a problem. In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill will cost $40.2 billion. By 2013, that price tag hits $65.2 billion. I am not comfortable leaving these problems to be dealt with in the future. If we cannot logically solve them now, how do we expect future Congresses to tackle cost containment while this program is spiraling out of control?"
But, Chambliss said, the bill did address his primary concerns.
"My original intentions were to work with this body to create and provide a fiscally responsible prescription drug benefit for seniors who are in need. My primary responsibility and obligation through this process was to make sure that Medicare beneficiaries with the lowest monthly income and the highest monthly drug bill were taken care of. That obligation has been fulfilled by this agreement," he said.
Chambliss' Georgia colleague, Zell Miller, was one of 11 Democrats who voted for the final version, but he released a one-sentence statement indicating he too had some reservations.
"While not what I had hoped for, it is a prescription drug benefit that is better than what we now have -- which is nothing," Miller said.
Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Albany, voted against the bill when it was before the House Saturday, calling it "deeply flawed."
"There is much that is wrong in this bill, and much less that is right. Rarely will we consider any legislation that will have a greater impact on the well-being of the American people. Let's get it right," Bishop said last week after he cosponsored a bill that he believes would "shore up rural providers and maintain the integrity of Medicare for rural communities while putting aside the more rancorous issues until later."
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah supported the measure.
"This is an important first step in making prescription drugs more affordable for those who need it the most," Kingston said. "Best of all, those who can least afford to pay will get the most help. And once the permanent prescription benefit begins in 2006, seniors who have no prescription coverage will be able to cut their drug bills in half by paying a $35 monthly premium."
"A good example of who this will help is Mrs. O.L. Webb of Savannah. She makes less than $1,000 a month but spends $300 a month on medications. Seniors should not have to choose between getting their prescriptions filled and paying the electric bill," he said. "Under the new system, Mrs. Webb would immediately save almost 40 percent on her medications. In 2006, she would have no co-pay, no deductible and she would only pay $5 to have her Lipitor refilled instead of the $109 she pays now."
Chambliss supported the bill's provision that it would increase Medicare funding for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, particularly in rural areas, where reimbursement levels are far below what is paid in urban areas of the country, he said. Additionally, the bill provides cost incentives to encourage companies to retain the health coverage they provide their retirees, he said.
The senator also was concerned that the bill wasn't flexible enough, cut reimbursement of drugs for cancer treatment and would have gaps in coverage for the middle class.
"This bipartisan agreement is a necessary step to completing the promise we made to seniors, and that is to provide prescription drug coverage. It is for this reason only that I vote for this conference report, but I will continuously seek ways to improve this program by seeking stronger cost containment provisions and increasing the flexibility for the plans," Chambliss said.
The bill will provide almost 1 million Georgia seniors with a Medicare prescription drug benefit for the first time in the 40-year history of the program, lawmakers said. Georgia could save $469 million over the next eight years with Medicare beneficiaries receiving access to a prescription drug benefit. Medicare instead of Medicaid will be assuming the prescription drug costs of roughly 172,000 beneficiaries in Georgia, they said.
Bishop cited the calculations of noted Emory University health policy authority Kenneth Thorpe that state under the bill 51,450 Georgians would lose employer retiree health benefits; 161,300 Georgian would pay more for prescriptions; 82,000 fewer Georgians would qualify for low-income benefits and 34,000 Georgians would pay more for Part B premiums for doctor and outpatient care.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.