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Senators backing Medicare coverage for prescriptions

Many Senate Democrats are rallying around a bipartisan proposal to provide Medicare prescription coverage just for people with low incomes or high costs, an idea they rejected as inadequate 10 days ago.

Democrats said Thursday that political considerations had forced them to scale back their earlier, proposal to offer drug benefits to all 40-million people on Medicare.

The new Democratic plan is being developed by Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.

Several Republican senators, including Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., both up for election this year, said they welcomed the new focus.

"I am very open to that," Smith said.

After canvassing her colleagues, Lincoln said: "There are plenty of senators who will support a bipartisan prescription drug compromise to protect the most vulnerable seniors in Medicare. The seniors with high drug costs, limited incomes and frail health need a safety net plan. I think that's what we all have in mind."

The House passed a Republican bill to provide drug benefits under Medicare last month. In the Senate, controlled by Democrats, rival proposals from each party failed to win sufficient votes earlier this week.

Democrats are now desperately seeking Republican votes for their proposals, as a way to overcome a stalemate on a bill of prime importance to the elderly, who vote in disproportionate numbers in off-year elections. Democrats had hoped to exploit the issue in this fall's elections, but some now find themselves on the defensive.

The bipartisan compromise emerging in the Senate would provide comprehensive Medicare coverage of prescription drugs for people with incomes under 150 percent or 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In addition, Medicare would cover at least 90 percent of prescription drug costs exceeding $4,000 a year for any beneficiary, regardless of income.

All beneficiaries could obtain drug discounts of the type already available to many people who receive private health insurance through their employers.

Democratic senators had insisted on an expansive program of prescription drug benefits that would have cost the federal government $594-billion from 2005 to 2012. But on Thursday many said they could accept a $400-billion program.

Sens. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said they had drafted a separate proposal to provide drug coverage for people with low incomes or high drug costs. They said they wanted to limit the federal cost to $300-billion.

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