Lawmakers Approve Discount Cards

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    The House and Senate have reached an agreement to help seniors buy prescription drugs with discount cards. Similar to the ones proposed by President Bush in July 2001, the cards would provide temporary aid to most Medicare beneficiaries in 2004 and 2005, before Medicare itself would provide drug benefits in 2006. The discount cards are only 1 item in the Medicare prescription drug benefits bill?legislation that would make the biggest changes in Medicare since the program was created in 1965.

    Approval of the drug discount cards had political significance because they would provide concrete assistance to many people before next year?s election. Furthermore, if Congress is unable to agree on a Medicare drug benefit, it might approve the use of discount cards beyond 2005, according to lawmakers. Details of the agreement are as follows:

? Medicare would set the standards for drug discount cards and give its approval to cards meeting those standards. Beneficiaries would have a choice of at least 2 cards authorized by Medicare.

? All Medicare beneficiaries would be eligible for a card, except for the 6 million low-income people who are also enrolled in Medicaid and entitled to Medicaid drug coverage. The federal government, however, would provide up to $600 a year in assistance to low-income people who do not qualify for Medicaid. The money could be used, with the discount card, to purchase drugs at lower prices.

? Pharmaceutical benefit managers, insurance companies, drugstore entities, and others could issue the discount cards, charging an enrollment fee up to $30 a year.