- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

President Bush wants Congress to pass Medicare reform legislation that contains prescription drug coverage for seniors this year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday.
"The president feels very passionate about it and strong about it, and I hope that we're going to be able to get enough bipartisan support to really get good prescription drug coverage with a revised and strengthened Medicare proposal," Mr. Thompson said in an interview on CNN's "Novak, Hunt & Shields."
The secretary said the administration supports a plan, offered by House Republicans last week, that would cost about $350 billion over 10 years. "We believe we can do it within the confines of the budget message, the budget resolution passed by the House and we're trying very hard to get it up and passed this year."
But Mr. Thompson said the White House does not believe it will be financially possible to provide the more generous prescription drug benefits proposed under a plan two Senate Democrats, Bob Graham of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia, introduced last week. Mr. Miller is a conservative Democrat, who often votes with Republicans.
The administration would not be willing to match the Graham-Miller proposal, which would cost $425 billion over eight years.
"We're not willing to go that far," Mr. Thompson said. "We feel we can get a very comprehensive proposal for $350 billion. That's what the House budget proposal said, and we feel we can do it with the kind of changes, the kind of choices that our seniors want across America. And we think it would benefit all seniors if we did that."
Under the House Republican plan, endorsed by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Medicare beneficiaries would pay premiums of $35 to $40 a month for drug coverage. Under the Graham-Miller plan, seniors would pay $25 a month for this coverage.
A $250 deductible under the Republican proposal would require Medicare beneficiaries to pay the first $250 a year in drug expenses. But the Senate Democrats' plan would have no deductible.
After a beneficiary pays the $250 deductible, the Republican plan would have Medicare pay 50 percent to 75 percent of drug costs up to about $2,000 yearly. Medicare recipients then would pay for drugs on their own until an individual has spent $5,000 in one year. After that, the government would pay all of a recipient's drug bills.
Senate Democrats want Medicare to pay 100 percent of a senior's drug bills after one's yearly expenses reach $4,000, and their plan would have the government chip in at least half of the cost of drugs up to $4,000.
"You know, it's easy to spend money when you don't have it, and that's the problem. There's not enough money around to satisfy all the concerns. So we believe the best proposal is the $350 billion one that House Republicans are pushing," Mr. Thompson said.
Democrats and Republicans alike have vowed to enact a Medicare drug benefit before the November congressional elections. Mr. Hastert predicts the Republican-controlled House will pass the measure by the Memorial Day recess.
Mr. Thompson said he "absolutely" believes Congress will approve a Medicare drug benefit before the November elections.
The 32 million-member AARP, previously known as the American Association of Retired Persons, already has said it supports the Graham-Miller bill.

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