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Pharmacy industry may narrow gap in coverage

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The White House, key lawmakers and the pharmaceutical industry are negotiating a possible deal to have drug companies pay for narrowing a gap in coverage in the prescription drug program for Medicare, officials said Friday night.

These officials said that the proposal under discussion would have drug firms pay part of the cost of brand name drugs for lower and middle-income seniors in the so-called "doughnut hole." The term refers to a feature of the current drug program that requires beneficiaries to pay the entire cost of prescriptions after initial coverage is exhausted but before catastrophic coverage begins.

Additionally, officials said any agreement might include a reduction in anticipated payments for the pharmaceutical industry under government-run health programs such as Medicaid. The savings would help pay for health care legislation that congressional Democrats and the administration are hoping to pass this year.

No additional details were available, including the amount of money drug companies might agree to pay. Nor was it known whether other elements might be involved that could ease the sting for the industry.

The officials stressed there was no agreement, and it was uncertain one was possible. But one added there could be a formal White House announcement as soon as any deal was reached, even if that meant over the weekend. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.

The White House and Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, have been in discussions with numerous industry groups, seeking concessions that would help finance the cost of subsidizing health coverage for millions who now lack it.

Any agreement with Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, which represents drug companies, would mark a major accomplishment that the White House and key Democrats in Congress would then hope to use to persuade hospitals, doctors, insurance companies or others to make their own deals.

It would also counter a recent series of stumbles that, while common with any major legislation, have contributed to the impression that the drive to enact health care legislation was sputtering.