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Pioneer Editorial: Let Medicare negotiate in drug pricing

Senior groups renewed there effort Wednesday to seek lower prescription drug costs, realizing that the year-old Medicare Part D didn't go far enough.

Senior groups renewed there effort Wednesday to seek lower prescription drug costs, realizing that the year-old Medicare Part D didn't go far enough.

The measure, when enacted in 2003, lacked one provision that groups such as AARP continue to find essential -- giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with drug companies for better deals.

On Wednesday, AARP Minnesota, Minnesota Senior Federation and ElderCare Rights Alliance joined together in a call for such authority, urging in particular that U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., support such legislation. Coleman, a staunch supporter of the Medicare Part D prescription drug program even when it was heavily criticized in its initial days, has fallen short of embracing the need to have Medicare negotiate directly for better drug prices. The original act, passed then by a Republican-dominated Congress, specifically forbad Medicare from negotiating for better deals.

AARP Minnesota President Skip Humphrey says it's a chance for Coleman "to stand up to the big pharmaceutical lobby and give Medicare the power to use its leverage of 43 million Medicare beneficiaries to bargain for lower prescription drug prices." A February AARP poll showed 93 percent of Minnesota residents want Medicare to use its enormous bargaining power to negotiate lower prices for prescription drugs.

Now with Congress in Democratic hands, the House in January passed a bill in a 255-170 vote to allow Medicare to negotiate prices, and a similar measure is expected before the Senate later this month.

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Critics say such an action could limit the number of drugs covered by Medicare or won't produce much of a savings anyway. But supporters say the measure should include mandates that Medicare will actively negotiate, seeking fair prices that won't reduce the number of drugs in the program or do serious damage to drug companies' bottom line.

An example often used is the Veterans Administration, which does have the authority to negotiate prescription drug prices, and its program could be used as a model.

The current Medicare Part D still has too many loopholes, as private sector insurance companies that offer the coverage constantly readjust their premiums and coverage. In some cases, premiums have doubled from one year to the next, forcing seniors to take the hit or annually go through the very complex process of comparing the offerings of nearly three dozen carriers to constantly find one that is the most cost effective.

Having the government do a little work in negotiating directly with pharmaceutical companies can only help seniors in that effort.

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