- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

No sooner had President George W. Bush unveiled his temporary plan Monday to provide much-needed, highly subsidized prescription drug coverage for the low-income elderly than senior congressional members of both parties poured cold water all over it.
Sen. Charles Grassley, Iowa Republican and new Senate Finance Committee chairman, said that any legislator who supports the prescription-drug plan would be "doing the president a disservice." He expressed concern that the administration's temporary drug plan was in effect a quick-fix that would cripple efforts to make more fundamental reforms to Medicare. In fact, because it is specifically limited to four years, the Bush proposal, which the White House has dubbed the Immediate Helping Hand plan, should serve as an inducement for Congress to enact desperately needed comprehensive Medicare reforms in the context of addressing the prescription drug issue.
Not surprisingly, Sen. Teddy Kennedy, the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, argued, "We should keep action of prescription drugs separate from other, much more controversial Medicare reforms. If Congress fulfills its responsibility," Mr. Kennedy wrote in Wednesday's USA Today, "every senior citizen can have prescription drug coverage under Medicare by this time next year." In fact, two-thirds of Medicare recipients already have some form of coverage for prescription drugs, strongly suggesting that the issue isn't the crisis Democrats portray it to be.
What is so appealing about Mr. Bush's plan is the immediate help it extends to those who need assistance the most. For each of the next four years, Mr. Bush's plan would provide $12 billion in block grants to the states to fund prescription drug plans for low-income seniors. Those plans would be comparable to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield drug benefits available to federal employees.
Specifically, the Bush proposal would pay all premiums for prescription drugs, as well as copayments and deductibles, for individuals and married couples whose incomes are less than 135 percent of the poverty level. (Currently, 135 percent of the poverty level is $11,600 for individuals and $15,700 for married couples.) It would provide sliding subsidies, which would not fall below half the cost of the premium, to those who earn between 135 percent and 175 percent of the poverty level. Catastrophic coverage would pay for all out-of-pocket prescription expenses above $6,000 per year for anyone, regardless of income. Altogether, the Bush plan would assist the neediest 9.5 million of Medicare's 39 million recipients.
It would, of course, be much easier and, undoubtedly, much more politically popular to provide prescription drug coverage for all Medicare recipients without enacting the required long-term Medicare reforms. Doing so, however, would also be grossly irresponsible. The best feature of the Immediate Helping Hand program is that Medicare's most vulnerable beneficiaries need not suffer while Congress works up the courage to make the tough decisions that all of its members know it must make.

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