• 45°

Medicare package passes Congress

By By Jo Bonner
Anyone who thinks the work of a congressman ends at 5 p.m. in the afternoon wasn't on Capitol Hill a few days ago. After several hours of intense -- at times even heated -- debate, the House of Representatives just after 2:30 Friday morning passed by a vote of 216-215 H.R. 1, the Medicare Prescription Drug and Modernization Act of 2003. At roughly the same time, our colleagues in the Senate passed a similar measure by a vote of 76-21.
The passage of this legislation marks the most dramatic and sweeping changes in the Medicare system in its history. More importantly, however, every person covered by Medicare -- all 40 million men and women --would for the first time be provided with assistance in paying the exorbitant costs of prescription drugs. This is good news for everyone, but especially for the low-income and elderly members of our population that need help the most. It was a historic moment, and I was honored to be on the floor of the House and have the opportunity to vote on a measure that will help thousands in the First District of Alabama.
Specific provisions of the bill
In this column two weeks ago, I took a moment to list some of the provisions that were included in a preliminary version of this bill, which had just been passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee. H.R. 1 includes nearly all of the details previously mentioned and would have an onset date of 2006. Additionally, it includes provisions to not only strengthen Medicare coverage for Americans but to strengthen the program as a whole and preserve its ability to provide continued coverage for many years to come.
At the outset, it is important to note that all of these provisions are based on an individual's voluntary participation; not one part of this plan requires any participation. Briefly, let me recap some of the specific parts of this legislation as it currently stands:
In addition to these provisions, prescription drugs will also be made available through either Enhanced Fee-for-Service or a newly-created Medicare Advantage plan. The choice of plans being provided to Medicare beneficiaries is the same that is provided to me and my colleagues in the House as well as all federal employees. Finally, this plan ensures that physicians can continue to provide medical care to senior citizens covered by Medicare and strengthens the care offered in many of our country's rural areas.
Passage doesn't mean work is over
The passage of Medicare legislation by both the House and Senate was without question a major hurdle that needed to be cleared. However, it is important to remember that there is work that remains before these changes can finally take effect. At this point, members from the House and Senate must reach an agreement on a compromise measure that encompasses aspects of both H.R. 1 and S. 1.
As Senator Trent Lott said when he was my guest this week on the "Gulf Coast Congressional Report," these are not perfect bills. Indeed, I think any one of us would be hard pressed to find a bill that has ever been passed by Congress that could be considered perfect. However, the work we have recently completed marks a big move in the right direction. When President Bush in the coming weeks signs the final version of the Medicare Modernization Act into law, he will be taking a great step in the cause of helping America's deserving seniors.