The US House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health plans to examine oversight of the Medicare prescription drug benefit as a priority issue of the new Congress, Representative Charles Rangel, the Democrat chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the panel’s senior Republican (ranking member), Representative Jim McCrery, have told the chairmen of the House Government Reform and House Administration committees.

The Ways and Means health subcommittee will also be examining drug pricing under the Medicare programme, plus proposals for the creation of a Medicare-sponsored drug option and negotiated price mechanisms, the committee leaders have stated. Another area of scrutiny will be the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS); the panel plans to investigation the adequacy of the agency’s budget and staffing, contracting activities and general accountability, they say, according to a CQ Healthbeat report.

The investigative process could be lively, as Reps Rangel and McCrery hold opposing views of on HR 4, the Medicare Prescription Drug Price Negotiation Act, which passed in the House earlier this month with bipartisan support by a vote of 255-170. At the time, Rep Rangel had said that the vote “was just the beginning,” and added: “the current prohibition on price negotiation defies common sense and reason, but this bill marks the beginning of a process to improve that law.”

Moreover, he said: “the protests coming from the pharmaceutical industry over this bill should indicate there is something wrong with the current system if they don’t trust the federal government to negotiate fairly.”

However, HR 4 was opposed by Rep McCrery, who said it “will not save seniors money, it will not save taxpayers money and it will not save the government money.”

Democrat Pete Stark, who chairs the Ways and Means health subcommittee, described the vote as a victory for seniors and people with disabilities and said that the bill “rights a wrong included in the prescription drug act in 2003.” He added: “I urge President Bush to reconsider his veto threat and help Medicare beneficiaries who are getting a raw deal rather than side with drug companies who are making billions.”

Nevertheless, in a joint statement on the forthcoming work of the panel, Reps Ranger and McCrery have said: “we will be rolling up our sleeves and working in a bipartisan fashion to deal with the challenges facing America. There will be times when we cannot agree with each other, but we hope to work together whenever we can and disagree respectfully when we don’t.” By Lynne Taylor