KEVIN FREKING Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON Democrats will soon renew efforts to let the government negotiate drug prices on behalf of Medicare participants. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday the Senate will turn its attention to the new drug benefit once it finishes with a bill that would loosen federal funding restrictions on stem cell research. While prospects for the drug legislation are uncertain, it would require Republican senators to take a stand on government negotiations a concept that has broad popular support. Currently, Medicare recipients who want subsidized coverage of their medicine enroll in private drug plans administered by insurers. The insurers negotiate how much they’ll pay for the medicine their Medicare customers take. Those plans get a federal subsidy, plus consumers pay for a portion of the medicine. But Democrats say that the federal government could save money if it used its massive purchasing power to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, much as it does for millions of veterans. The Senate legislation stops short of what House lawmakers approved in January. The House bill requires the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate with drug companies. The Senate bill merely lifts a provision that bars him from doing so. The Congressional Budget Office said the Senate bill would have a “negligible effect on federal spending,” the same assessment it gave to the House bill. “The secretary would lack the leverage to negotiate prices ... that are more favorable than those obtained by (prescription drug plans) under current law,” CBO Director Peter Orszag said in a letter to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. President Bush has already promised to veto the bill approved by the House. House Democrats used their new majority status to push through the drug price negotiations during the first 100 hours of the new Congress. The vote was 255-170, well short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.