House and Senate negotiators are closing in on an agreement on a discount card for Medicare recipients that is expected to cut prescription drug costs an average of 15 percent.
The drug card will give older Americans immediate help with high drug prices while the government prepares to deliver a drug benefit through Medicare. The tentative agreement outlined Tuesday cements one part of a much broader and more contentious debate over a Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"Completing work on the details of the prescription drug discount card is critical," said the chief negotiator, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas. "The card will provide immediate savings for all seniors on their drug costs."
One dispute over the drug cards remained outstanding — whether low-income Medicare recipients will be required to make a co-payment when buying drugs.
Negotiators otherwise agreed to allow multiple private companies to offer the drug cards. The companies could charge an enrollment fee of up to $30. The cards could be used to buy prescription drugs only, not vitamins or nonprescription medications.
Some low-income people will get a $600 subsidy to help with their drug costs. The aid will go to those below a poverty measurement equal this year to $12,900 for individuals and $16,600 for couples.
Companies would be required to pass the drug discounts onto card users — but not all. Some of the savings will be used to administer the programs. Drug prices will not be locked in for any length of time.
The card sponsors would be required to review a user's prescriptions to minimize adverse drug interactions.
Lawmakers have already struck agreement over technical portions of the prescription drug bill covering Medicare contracting, patient appeals and other regulatory matters.
Difficult negotiations are expected on other parts of the bill, which proposes a historic expansion of Medicare to give recipients some help with rising drug costs. Negotiators expect to spend weeks reconciling a mostly bipartisan Senate bill with a Republican-backed House bill.
Medicare provides health care insurance for 40 million Americans, those 65 and older and the disabled.