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House Vote Bars Impotence Drugs From Medicare

Issue of Coverage by Medicare Prescription Benefit Now Goes to Senate
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June 24, 2005 -- Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs won't be covered when Medicare launches its prescription drug benefit in January, according to a spending bill passed in the House of Representatives Friday.

Lawmakers voted to bar Medicare or Medicaid from paying for the drugs as part of a bill funding federal health and education programs. The amendment, which passed 285-121, comes several weeks after reports that several state health programs were funding the drugs for prisoners, including convicted sex offenders.

Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa) -- a sponsor of the amendment -- said that without the prohibition Medicare would wind up providing "taxpayer-funded recreational sex drugs." The ban includes Viagra and two similar drugs, Cialis and Levitra.

Some opponents argued that the drugs are important treatments for men who lose sexual functioning because of illnesses including diabetes and nerve damage. "It's important that these drugs are available when they're medically necessary," said Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.), who chairs the Ways and Means health subcommittee.

But that argument was rejected by supporters of the ban, some of whom stressed that federal funds should not be spent on sexual enhancement drugs.

"Sex is never medically necessary. If it was, priests wouldn't live into their 90s," King tells WebMD.

The amendment is not the final word on the drugs. The Senate has yet to weigh in on its own version of the health and education funding bill, and pharmaceutical manufacturers are almost sure to use their powerful lobbying forces to oppose the ban in the final version of the bill.

It's probably not the last word on the topic," Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), chair of the appropriations subcommittee on health, education, and labor, tells WebMD. Regula supported the ban.

Senate Finance Committee chair Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) last month introduced legislation that would eliminate federal funding for Viagra, Cialis, and Levitra. Medicare and Medicaid would spend $2 billion on the drugs over the next decade if they remained eligible for federal funds, according to a statement released by Grassley's office.

"We live in a world of limited resources, and those dollars could be spent more wisely," Grassley said.

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