The Republican-led Senate Tuesday gave final approval to a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. health care insurance program for the elderly known as Medicare. It is a victory for President Bush, who has made the issue a top domestic priority.
The legislation gives elderly Americans prescription drug benefits and more control over their health care options. It also introduces free market-style changes and cost containment measures.
The bill represents the first major reform of the medicare program since it began in 1965.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, who is also a practicing physician, praised the legislation. "This bill will help millions of people, especially with low incomes and high drug costs," he said. "It will strengthen medicare by adding this long overdue benefit and preserving the basic structure of the medicare program."
Opponents, mostly Democrats, say the bill undermines the medicare program and fails to give elderly Americans adequate assistance.
Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, has been a key opponent of the White House-backed legislation. "It is the first step toward a total dismantling of medicare," he said. "In exchange for destroying medicare, it offers senior citizens a paltry and inadequate drug benefit. The moment it is implemented it will make nine million senior citizens, almost a quarter of all senior citizens, worse off than they are today."
Even some conservative Republicans opposed the $400 billion measure, saying it is too expensive.
But in the end, the Senate backed the bill, just days after the House of Representatives narrowly gave its approval. The Senate vote came after some Democrats unsuccessfully tried to block the measure with delaying tactics.
The bill now goes to President Bush for his signature.
It is a significant victory for Mr. Bush, who had called on Congress to implement medicare reform this year. He may use the issue in his campaign for re-election next year, hoping to win votes from the growing numbers of older Americans.