Congress has approved sweeping Medicare legislation to give seniors a prescription drug benefit. It creates a broad new role for private insurance in the government-run program.
The cost of prescription drugs overwhelms millions of retirees and disabled Americans. Now congress wants to reduce the amount they pay, for the first time forcing the government to foot part of the bill.
"In this bill, we make Medicare work better for senior citizens," said rep. Dennis Hastert, Speaker of the House. A better Medicare program that doesn't include prescription drug benefits is not serving America's seniors well."
And by one vote, 216 to 215, house republicans pushed through their version of the new prescription drug plan, less than an hour after the senate passed a companion bill.
On the house floor, debate stretched past two in the morning.
"The democrats have come to the floor as servants of the people," said house minority leader, rep. Nancy Pelosi. "The republicans have come as handmaidens of the prescription drug industry."
Under the plan, seniors will still have to pay out of pocket for their medicine, roughly $700.00 before insurance kicks in and another $1,000 to $3,000 for those with higher drug bills who fall through a gap in coverage and the new prescription benefit doesn't kick in until the year 2006.
"I'm 86 years old. So that 2006 is a long, long way," said senior citizen, Al Shapiro.
There is also concern that retired workers already getting prescription drug coverage from their companies could lose that benefit if employers push them into a government program.