Maine’s senior senator could be on a course that leads to the nib of the president’s veto pen.

But Sen. Olympia Snowe’s adamant stand on negotiating prescription drug prices will likely draw cheers from senior citizens, especially those who rely on Medicare.

During a Senate Finance Committee hearing Wednesday on President Bush’s fiscal 2006 health budget, Snowe issued a formal statement that stakes out her position.

The nutshell of it: “Solutions such as negotiation and market competition will prove integral to maintaining our Medicare benefit, and making health care more affordable for all Americans.”

Snowe said she joined a broad coalition of lawmakers intent on assuring “that seniors realize the benefit that we have promised.”

Keeping the costs reasonable, she said, means the process has to include price negotiations, among other things.

Last Friday, Bush said he’d veto any changes that would scale back his Medicare prescription drug benefit. That includes efforts aimed at giving the secretary of health and human services the ability to negotiate prescription drug prices.

The administration accepts a government study that maintains price negotiations won’t result in cost savings. Bush issued his veto warning after new estimates arose showing the Medicare drug benefit could cost $724 billion over a decade.

Most members of Congress believed that the benefit would cost far less.

Snowe, a Republican, and Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, earlier this month unveiled an act dubbed MEND that they say would strengthen the drug coverage being offered to seniors.

The act would repeal a section of law that prevents the HHS secretary from negotiating for lower-cost drugs purchased in bulk quantities. Snowe and Wyden maintain that buying drugs in bulk and negotiating prices for their sale would save money.

“I want to … keep our promise to seniors to negotiate more competitive, better prices for Medicare beneficiaries,” said Snowe in her Wednesday statement.

She added that to “foster cost-savings competition … means joining the marketplace of other industrialized counties.”

That refers to importing approved drugs from foreign nations if the price is better than U.S. drug makers offer.

“We must remember the purpose of Medicaid – to ensure that the most vulnerable of our society receive the health care that they need, but cannot afford,” said Snowe.

Snowe sits on the Finance Committee, which is hearing the budget proposal.

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