Report criticizes Medicare drug plan costs

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WASHINGTON, Oct 16 (Reuters) US taxpayers and Medicare patients could have saved almost 15 billion dollars in 2007 if private health insurers had cut expenses for prescription drug coverage and negotiated bigger discounts, a report from Democratic staff of a House of Representatives panel said.

The Medicare prescription drug benefits offered by private insurers operate with ''high administrative costs, sales expenses and profits,'' the report said yesterday.

Staff for Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by California Rep. Henry Waxman, based their conclusions on proprietary cost and pricing data obtained from 12 insurers that provide drug coverage to more than 18 million Medicare patients.

''The cost and pricing data obtained by the committee reveal that use of private insurers to deliver Medicare drug coverage is driving up costs and producing only limited savings on drug prices,'' the report said.

Aetna Inc, UnitedHealth Group, Humana and other companies offer drug plans through Medicare, the federal health coverage for the elderly and disabled.

Administrative expenses, sales costs and profits of private insurers offering Medicare drug plans are almost six times higher than the administrative costs of traditional Medicare coverage, costing almost 5 billion dollars or about 180 dollars per beneficiary in 2007, the report said.

The insurers' profits will account for 1 billion dollars, the report said.

The companies failed to negotiate significant rebates from drug makers, the report also said. Insurers did get discounts in the form of rebates that reduced spending by 8.1 per cent in 2007. But that was less than the 26 percent the Medicaid program secured from drug manufacturers. Medicaid is a state and federal insurance program for the poor.

When a Republican-led Congress created the Medicare drug coverage in 2003, supporters said using private insurers would promote competition and cost savings. The benefits took effect in 2006.

Democratic critics have questioned whether private companies can be as efficient and wield as much negotiating power as traditional Medicare.

''Privatizing the delivery of the drug benefit has enriched the drug companies and insurance industry at the expense of seniors and taxpayers,'' Waxman said in a statement on Monday. He released the report with 12 Democrats on his committee.

Officials at UnitedHealth, Aetna and Humana could not immediately be reached for comment.

Reuters SS DB0914

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