WASHINGTON - Having decided that Medicare reform is too complex to achieve in the few remaining days of the legislative session, Congress and the White House have begun treating the issue almost exclusively as a campaign wedge. The introduction of a Republican proposal for a Medicare prescription drug benefit that lacks support from party leadership, a Democrat's assault on drug patent rights, and publicity orchestrated by the White House about a "private" meeting to jawbone pharma companies last week underscored the importance of drug pricing and accessibility as campaign issues.

Top aides to President Clinton summoned representatives of six pharma and biotech companies that are members of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to the White House to complain about a PhRMA-sponsored advertising campaign. The television ads, which are reminiscent of those used to whip up opposition to Clinton's health care reform efforts, warn senior citizens that the White House Medicare prescription drug benefit plan would take away their private insurance coverage.