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.
Some Cuts in Spending Bill
The amendment overshadowed the overall spending bill, which grants $63 billion on federal health programs but includes cuts to several major agencies. Rep. David Obey (Wis.), the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, expressed frustration that debate about Viagra had, at least temporarily, taken precedence over "what is happening to sick people with this bill."
The CDC faces a $295 million cut to its budget, though the nearly 5% in reductions was less than President Bush had asked for in his budget.
The bill also sends $28.4 billion for research at the National Institutes of Health, a 0.5% increase after five years in which its budget was doubled by Congress. Lawmakers also voted to cut $100 million from the U.S. contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, and to cut 84% from a program providing medical training grants to future doctors and nurses.
A $1.8 billion program favored by President Bush to build new community health centers to serve uninsured people got a $100 million boost over last year. But another White House-backed program to fund new electronic health records technology received $3 billion less than the $78 billion Bush had requested.
Meanwhile, the bill gave a more than 10% increase to abstinence-only sex education programs, which remain controversial over questions of their effectiveness in delaying or preventing teens' sexual activity. The federal government would spend $115 million on the programs next year under the bill.
Lawmakers voted 250-151 to pass the spending bill, which faced criticism from some Democrats who said tax cuts favored by Republicans prevented spending on key health programs.
"This is the most important bill that we will consider this year in terms of meeting the needs of the average American family. This bill just doesn't measure up to our national obligations," Obey says.
"When we have less money, we spend less money," Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.) tells WebMD.