WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday hailed a new agreement by the pharmaceutical industry to lower drug costs for senior citizens as proof that deals can be struck with major health care players to overhaul U.S. health policies this year.
While details of the agreement were still being worked out, the understanding announced over the weekend by lawmakers and the White House involves drug makers giving up $80 billion over the next decade to trim federal costs and help cash-strapped seniors.
Much of that money would go toward closing the current gap in prescription drug coverage through Medicare. Obama said that some seniors affected by the so-called "doughnut hole"_ the gap in Medicare coverage of annual prescription costs between $2,700 and $6,100 — would get a discount of at least 50 percent on negotiated drugs.
Invoking a campaign slogan, Obama said the deal sends a message to cynics "who've grown accustomed to sky-is-falling prognoses and the certainties that we cannot get this done.
"Yes, we can. We are going to get this done," he said.
Obama's formal remarks at the White House, where he was joined by the head of AARP, the seniors advocacy group, kicked off a week in which the president wants to increase his visibility in pushing health care changes.
Also Monday, he held a bill-signing ceremony for legislation that gives the federal government new powers to regulate the tobacco industry.
He's scheduled a Tuesday press conference, where he's expected to speak more on health care.
And on Wednesday, he'll lead a White House "town hall" event on health care.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs downplayed questions about whether Democrats' plans to overhaul the nation's health care system were in trouble on Capitol Hill. "I think the president will continue to use the opportunities that he has at the White House and on the road to talk about what he thinks will make America safer and stronger, ensuring that we get health care reform," Gibbs said.
Democrats in the House of Representatives last week announced an 850-page draft bill to cover the nation's uninsured, including a new public alternative to private insurance and requirements that insurers cover people with pre-existing conditions. However, they didn't put a price tag on it or spell out how to pay for it.
The Senate Finance Committee postponed unveiling a plan after the Congressional Budget Office estimated costs for comprehensive coverage at as high as $1.6 trillion over a decade — much more than the $950 billion that White House officials have talked about.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Sunday on CNN that Obama may not have the votes he needs for such an overhaul. While polling shows Americans favor expanding health insurance coverage, politicians are torn over raising taxes to pay for it, and some are concerned that a public option that competes with private insurance would lead to the undoing of private insurance.
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