Republican members of the conference committee charged with reconciling differences in the House and Senate Medicare bills (H.R. 1 and S. 1) were disrupted by an ongoing spat between Senate Finance Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas (R-California).
Grassley told Congress/AM Daily he withdrew his staff from the conference process because he wants negotiators to begin talks on the provisions in both bills that would allocate at least $25 billion to increase payments to rural Medicare providers.
Grassley said aides to Thomas, who as head of the conference committee sets the agenda, told Senate staffers they are not permitted to discuss such payments. Grassley believes Thomas is stalling in order to gain leverage in the negotiations.
No staff-level meetings to discuss reconciling the two bills have been scheduled, and a full conference committee meeting expected in early September was never scheduled.
A spokesperson for the House Ways and Means Committee said negotiators have come to agreement on only one-third of a final bill, including much of the language for a temporary drug discount card, a series of changes to provider appeals, and other regulatory reforms.
While the pushing and shoving continue on Capitol Hill, pollsters examined the cool reception seniors gave to the House and Senate Medicare prescription drug benefit proposals.
According to a September USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of 1,009 adult Medicare beneficiaries, seniors are skeptical Medicare would be able to effectively deliver a prescription drug benefit.
Seventy-six percent of those responding said they believe the Medicare reform proposals would not do enough to help seniors pay for prescription drugs, while 15 percent said the reform proposals would do enough to help seniors.
Forty-three percent said the proposed Medicare changes would have no effect on their current situation. Twenty-seven percent said the proposals would make their situations worse, and 26 percent said the bills would improve their situations.
Conrad F. Meier is managing editor of Health Care News. His email address is [email protected].