- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

Senate Democrats yesterday attacked the Republicans' Medicare prescription-drug plan expected to be released this week, saying it has a "gap in coverage" as wide as the Grand Canyon and an "untested delivery system run by private insurance companies" that would make seniors "guinea pigs."
The critics were Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat, and Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, co-authors of a Senate Democratic proposal to provide Medicare prescription-drug benefits. They expressed their concerns about the Republican version of the prescription-drug plan in a joint radio message yesterday in the "Democratic response" to the president's weekly radio address.
In their speeches yesterday, as they often do, President Bush and the Democratic senators had entirely different topics. The Democrats focused on prescription-drug coverage for seniors, but Mr. Bush used his address to promote administration efforts to expand homeownership opportunities, especially for minorities.
Mr. Miller, who often votes with Republicans on many issues, was especially critical of what he called the "gaps in coverage" contained in the Republican prescription-drug package. Pointing out that the Republican plan would not cover prescription-drug expenses between $2,000 and $5,000, Mr. Miller said yesterday: "Talk about a gap. That's the Grand Canyon."
"And the ones that will be hurt the most are the ones who can afford it the least: low-income seniors. For seniors who need prescription drugs to stay alive, our plan is the best medicine," he said.
Under the Graham-Miller measure, Medicare beneficiaries would pay a $25 monthly premium and no deductible. They would be charged a $10 co-payment when they buy generic medications and a $40 co-payment when they buy more expensive name-brand drugs.
After a Medicare senior pays out-of-pocket costs of $4,000 in a single year, the federal government would pay the full tab of drug costs.
The House Republican plan is still emerging, but its latest drafts indicate it would require a $35 monthly premium and a $250-a-year deductible. Most reports indicate the plan would include 100 percent federal coverage of single-year drug expenses above $5,000, but a few said full coverage would kick in after $4,500.
Published reports have put the price tag of the Republican plan at $350 billion over 10 years and that of the Senate Democrats at $400 billion to $500 billion over eight years. A House Democratic plan, released late last week, would cost $750 billion to $800 billion over a decade.
Mr. Graham said yesterday the Republican prescription drug plan is "confusing and complicated" and would rely on "gimmicks and gotchas." He held that private insurers would be making the decisions and that much of what is planned is experimental.
"America's seniors shouldn't be guinea pigs," he said.
Mr. Graham and Mr. Miller focused on "gaps" in prescription-drug coverage, but Mr. Bush, in his address, lamented the "homeownership gap" that exists between white Americans and minorities.
"While nearly three-quarters of all white Americans own their homes, less than half of all African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans are homeowners. We must begin to close this homeownership gap by dismantling the barriers that prevent minorities from owning a piece of the American dream," Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush announced he is proposing a $200 million program designed to help 40,000 low-income families each year to meet down payment requirements. A "high down payment" is currently the "single greatest hurdle to first-time homeownership," he said.
The president also said he has proposed providing developers with nearly $2.4 billion in tax credits over the next five years to help them build about 200,000 "affordable single-family" houses in "distressed areas."
"But government action isn't enough," said Mr. Bush. He noted he also has challenged the private real estate industry to participate in a "major nationwide effort to increase minority homeownership."

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