- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2001

President Bush yesterday said his plan to give discounts to senior citizens on prescription drugs is merely the first step in a comprehensive overhaul of Medicare.
But Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle warned the discount could give "false hope" to the elderly and delay implementation of broader Medicare reforms.
The president wants Congress to tackle sweeping Medicare reform by autumn, but is acting on his own to give senior citizens special cards that will slash the cost of prescriptions by early next year.
"The drug discount plan is the first necessary step to provide immediate help to seniors without destabilizing Medicare's finances," Mr. Bush told lawmakers on the South Lawn of the White House. "It is the first step, but it is not a substitute for a drug benefit and for strengthening Medicare."
The president's plan to push discount cards also puts pressure on the Democrat-controlled Senate to tackle the thorny issue of Medicare.
"Given the fact that Congress has not been able to take any action on Medicare in recent years, it's a good thing that the administration can act on behalf of seniors without congressional approval," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "That way seniors can get their discount cards."
Mr. Bush has directed the Health and Human Services Department to come up with a plan to distribute the cards. The White House is hoping the plan will pay political dividends for Mr. Bush, who is increasingly focusing on health issues that affect senior citizens.
"Every senior on Medicare can receive a new drug discount card," the president said. "It won't cost much — at most a dollar or two a month — and will work like the cards you already have for, say, your groceries."
Mr. Daschle, who met with the president late yesterday afternoon, emerged from the West Wing of the White House to criticize the drug discount plan.
"The concern I have is that it doesn't go anywhere beyond where we are today," the South Dakota Democrat told reporters. "There are a lot of groups that offer these discount cards, including one of the largest senior citizen groups, the AARP, so I'm not sure what the redundancy does for us."
Mr. Daschle warned that broader reforms might be delayed if the president insists on pushing forward with his drug discount cards, which the Democrat said is "not a panacea."
"There really isn't any 'there' there," Mr. Daschle said. "If it were as effective as some would have you believe, we'd have them for gasoline today."
The president acknowledged the cards will do little to address the structural problems of Medicare, which was enacted in 1965. He pointed out that medicine has changed so dramatically that the system is badly antiquated.
"In 1965, health care usually meant hospital care," Mr. Bush said. "Today, we understand how important it is to prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Yet Medicare does not fully cover preventative medicine.
"In 1965, prescription drugs meant antibiotics. Today, illnesses that could once only be treated by invasive surgery are treated instead with effective new drugs.
"But these new drugs can be very expensive. And under the current system, Medicare doesn't pay for them."
Mr. Bush introduced several senior citizens who pay significant sums for prescription drugs and medical treatment currently not covered by Medicare.
"Medicare's funding structure doesn't make sense," the president said. "And Medicare's costs are rising too fast, which creates anxieties about the program's stability."
While he gave credit to former President Lyndon B. Johnson for creating Medicare, Mr. Bush said reforms are long overdue.

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