- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

President Bush yesterday signed into law the most sweeping changes to Medicare since 1965, co-opting a Democratic issue less than a year before the presidential election as he praised Democrats for moving past “old partisan differences.”

But congressional Democrats — accusing the president of everything from selling out to huge pharmaceutical companies to shortchanging seniors crushed by high prescription-drug costs — immediately vowed to repeal huge portions of the new law.

With dozens of supporters behind him, Mr. Bush yesterday said the $400 billion Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003 will allow seniors of all socioeconomic levels the freedom to choose their health coverage.

“We show our respect for seniors by giving them more choices and more control over their decision-making,” the president told about 2,000 seniors and federal employees at a bill-signing ceremony at Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall.

“We’re putting individuals in charge of their health care decisions. And as we move to modernize and reform other programs of this government, we will always trust individuals and their decisions and put personal choice at the heart of our efforts,” he said to applause.

In a nutshell, the new law establishes a monthly Medicare premium of $35 for 2006, the first full year of the program. The program’s 40 million participants will pay the first $250 in drug costs, then just 25 percent up to a total expenditure of $2,250. They then pay 100 percent up to $5,100, a $2,850 gap in coverage, but after that, the government pays all but 5 percent of drug costs.

Seniors who earn less than $12,123 will pay no premium or deductible and will have no gap in coverage, and the new law begins covering low-income seniors next summer. The bill also allows greater flexibility for seniors to change insurance, establishes new procedures to help prevent illnesses, and creates “health savings accounts so Americans can set aside as much as $4,500 every year, tax-free, to save for medical expenses.”

“These reforms are the act of a vibrant and compassionate government,” Mr. Bush said. “The challenges facing seniors on Medicare were apparent for many years. And those years passed with much debate and a lot of politics and little reform to show for it.”

Praising members of Congress on stage during the ceremony, the president said: “This year, we met our challenge with focus and perseverance. … We kept our promise, and found a way to get the job done. This legislation is the achievement of members in both political parties. And this legislation is a victory for all of America’s seniors.”

But senior Democratic lawmakers — especially those running for president in 2004 — vowed to strip away huge portions of the law and to make the expansion of Medicare an issue in the national elections.

“We’re going to win this battle. We’re going to take back our Medicare,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “You sold us out, so we’re going to go all out to repeal what you’ve done.”

Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont joined the criticism, saying, “The Republican Medicare drug bill is a bust for America’s seniors.”

Mr. Kennedy and Rep. John D. Dingell, Michigan Democrat, today plan to introduce a bill with proposed revisions to the law. Democrats in Congress oppose provisions allowing the gap in coverage of drug costs and prohibiting the government from negotiating prices with drug makers.

But changes to the law face an uphill battle. The Medicare overhaul was supported by dozens of major senior citizens’ organizations, including the powerful AARP, which boasts 35 million members.

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