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Bush’s Medicare Plan Sparks Skepticism in Both Parties

Times Staff Writer

As President Bush hit the road to rally public support for Medicare reform, his proposal for a prescription drug benefit for seniors ran into a strong dose of Republican and Democratic skepticism on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

Although it was unclear whether Bush’s plan would force seniors to move into managed-care programs to receive the drug benefit, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said firmly that he would only support a plan providing a benefit “that’s available for all seniors, not just those that switch into managed care.”

“I won’t draw lines on drug coverage,” Grassley said. “All seniors should have access to affordable prescription drug coverage, regardless of the choice they make.”

The Republicans, who control Congress, are eager to establish a program that would help older Americans, a politically important group, pay the high cost of drugs. White House officials were unclear how the prescription drug benefit would work. A number of lawmakers expressed concern for any proposal requiring seniors to join health-maintenance or preferred-provider organizations to receive prescription drug coverage.

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Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a physician, said he hopes to bring a prescription drug plan before the Senate within six months.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) predicted that the new GOP-controlled Congress would approve a prescription drug program tied to Medicare reform.

But GOP leaders, like many lawmakers, said they were waiting for details of the president’s proposal.

“We’re in the process of discussing what the package is and working with the White House and others about what the president will roll out as his proposal,” DeLay said. “We’re not even close to understanding what the president’s going to propose.”

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But Rep. Doug Ose (R-Sacramento) said: “The fact of the matter is right now we’ve got a problem. We’re trying to fix it. Our plan at least provides some relief.”

Bush traveled to Grand Rapids, Mich., to promote his proposal to increase Medicare spending by $400 billion over the next decade.

“I believe that seniors, if they’re happy with the current Medicare system, should stay on the current Medicare system,” Bush said. “However, Medicare must be more flexible.”

Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.), a leader on Medicare reform, said the administration and its allies need to move quickly.

“The only way you’re going to get real Medicare reform passed is if the president gets very involved and firmly behind the selling of a proposal,” he said.

Breaux said that if the proposal is patterned after the prescription drug benefit offered to members of Congress, it would be a move “in the right direction.”

“Under the federal plan I have, I get prescription drugs, and I’m not in an HMO,” he said.

Other Democrats said they didn’t need to wait for further details before branding Bush’s proposal a “Medicare privatization plan.”

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“Rather than simply adding prescription drug coverage to a Medicare program that works,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, “the Bush plan would coerce seniors to drop out of traditional Medicare and join an HMO in order to get even limited drug coverage.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Los Angeles) said the president is “forgetting that Medicare was created because the private sector failed to provide seniors with affordable health care. Relying on the private sector didn’t work for seniors then, and it won’t work now.”

But Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside) said he expects room for compromise.

“In something like this, there’s always going to be some compromise,” he said. “It has to be done in a way that is sustainable and affordable.”


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