- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2001

President Bush yesterday proposed a four-year, $48 billion program to help low-income seniors pay for prescription drugs, saying Congress has been slow to act on comprehensive Medicare reform.

Dubbed "Immediate Helping Hand," the temporary program would stay in place until a comprehensive Medicare reform package is passed assuming Congress takes up the matter soon.

"If they're going to drag their feet, if the members of the Congress on both sides of the aisle don't feel the same urgency that I feel … on Medicare reform, then I feel it's very important for us to have an immediate helping hand," Mr. Bush said.

The president wants the proposal to move quickly and be considered separately from an overhaul of Medicare, which will take months to complete.

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Bush proposed a $110 billion plan that eventually would pay 25 percent of medicine costs for all seniors. But he said he would be willing to fold his proposal into broader reform when Congress takes up the matter.

"If in fact what they're saying is that they plan on expediting a Medicare reform that would include prescription drugs for all seniors, then all of a sudden I begin to say, 'Well gosh, that may make sense,' " Mr. Bush told reporters.

Rep. Pete Stark of California, the ranking Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means health subcommittee, said the proposal is "dead on arrival."

"Mr. President, let's not waste time on this proposal," he said in a statement. "The plan relies on the states, many of whom will not be able to start their programs any faster than the federal government could start a national Medicare program.

"This is not rocket science: the outlines of a compromise are pretty clear," Mr. Stark said.

Said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle: "We shouldn't settle for a prescription plan that stops halfway through.

"If we pass this half-measure now, it would take the pressure off Congress to ever produce a real, permanent solution," he said.

If approved by Congress, Mr. Bush's program would cover the full cost of medicine for the poorest Americans, those with annual incomes of less than $11,300 for individuals and $15,200 for married couples. It also would cover half the cost of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries with annual incomes up to $15,000 for individuals, or $20,300 for couples.

The program would help nearly 10 million of the country's neediest seniors.

Medicare generally does not cover the cost of most drugs prescribed outside the hospital, although many recipients get coverage by signing up for a Medicare HMO or by purchasing supplemental plans. One-third of senior citizens have no drug coverage.

Twenty-six states already have enacted assistance programs for seniors who can't afford medicine, and nearly all other states are considering proposals in their current legislative sessions.

Under Mr. Bush's plan, the federal government immediately would pick up the costs for the states that have aid programs in place. States considering such programs also would be eligible to receive federal money.

Mr. Bush met yesterday with two top congressional Republicans on the issue, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Rep. Bill Thomas of California. Both said the president would not object to the proposed program's inclusion in a broader overhaul of Medicare.

"Congress wants to do something more comprehensive," Mr. Grassley, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters after the meeting. "He doesn't object to that."

Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the president wants bipartisan reform of Medicare, but not at the expense of the most needy seniors.

"The president believes that we need to move as quickly as possible to get prescription drugs, particularly to low-income seniors. It has been the experience of Washington that broader reforms typically take more time," he said.

"But I want to point something out, because I think this is part of the healthy signs of bipartisanship we're already seeing. I think there's agreement among Democrats and Republicans. We must get prescription drugs to our nation's seniors. The question is how, and that's a healthy position for our nation and our seniors to be in."

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