- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 15, 2001

President Bush yesterday touted his proposed national prescription drug discount program for elderly Americans and pledged that the government's commitment to provide health care for seniors "will always stand."
It was the second time in three days that Mr. Bush trumpeted his prescription drug discount plan as the "first step" toward comprehensive Medicare reform in the 21st century.
"This is a straightforward, nonbureaucratic program, which can be in place by January. … The program will provide immediate help to seniors without destabilizing Medicare," Mr. Bush said in his weekly radio address.
But Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, who delivered the Democrats' radio response, dismissed the president's assertions, calling the administration's discount drug proposal a "half-baked plan … that builds false hopes that help no one."
Medicare traditionally does not pay for prescription drugs. Under the Bush plan, which would not need congressional approval, seniors would be issued pharmacy cards to buy prescription drugs at discount prices.
The pharmacy cards would be available to all Medicare patients who want them but would be privately administered. Medicare would endorse several discount cards, like those offered by pharmaceutical companies and buyers' clubs for other private companies, for use in the new program.
The cards would be free or cost at most $25. They would save Medicare recipients 25 percent in typical pharmacy purchases, or as much as 50 percent for mail-order drugs.
Starting tomorrow, the government will begin taking applications from organizations wishing to provide the cards.
Mr. Bush said his discount plan is only a first step toward more comprehensive Medicare reform that would expand Medicare coverage, upgrade services, increase Medicare financing and give seniors more control over the type of care they receive.
The president's push for the new discount drug program comes as Senate Democrats prepare legislation that would make drug coverage a standard Medicare benefit. Democrats want the government to pay half of the cost of a senior's prescription.
At this time, Medicare health maintenance organizations offer some drug coverage. But a third of Medicare recipients must pay for prescription drugs out of their own pockets.
In his remarks yesterday, Mr. Johnson said the Bush discount drug plan does not go far enough, given the soaring costs of medications.
"Prescription drug prices are skyrocketing three, four, even five times the rate of inflation" for "senior citizens on fixed incomes," said Mr. Johnson.
"Prescription drug meetings I have had with South Dakotans continue to point to the same problems. Do individuals pay for their medication, or do they use their limited resources to buy groceries and pay the bills?" he added.
While conceding "modest discounts may be a start," Mr. Johnson said Democrats hope to see a "meaningful, universal, voluntary system" in place this year that "seniors can count on to provide access to drug coverage they simply don't have today."
The South Dakota senator said Democrats want to work with the White House and Republicans in Congress "to create an affordable, effective Medicare prescription drug plan that provides true relief for senior citizens."
Medicare reform and prescription drug benefits were key themes in Mr. Bush's presidential campaign. In his first budget, he sought $156 billion over 10 years to cover the cost of prescription drug benefits.
Democrats have argued the price tag would be between $300 billion and $500 billion over 10 years. In April, the Congressional Budget Office said it would cost $728 billion over the same time period to cover just half of Medicare recipients.

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