- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2003

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. President Bush yesterday urged Congress to act quickly on his plan to revamp the flagging Medicare system, but offered few details of the proposal to add $400 billion over the next decade.

"A reformed and strengthened Medicare system, plus a healthy dosage of Medicare spending in the budget, will make us say firmly, 'We fulfilled our promise to the seniors of America,' " the president said to loud applause from more than 1,000 supporters gathered at a concert hall.

While a senior administration official said last week Mr. Bush would use the Michigan trip to set out specifics of the Medicare plan, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday doing so "would be premature."

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But the spokesman said Mr. Bush "is launching a domestic agenda and sending a message by making this his first priority of the State of the Union that he is serious."

"He wants Congress to make it a priority. It's been an issue that Congresses have talked about forever and not got anything done. He thinks this can be, and should be, the year to get it done," Mr. Fleischer said.

Mr. Bush yesterday vowed any new Medicare program would not force seniors out of the current plan, but said he wanted to offer new alternatives to the government-run program that covers all Americans from age 65 and several million disabled people.

The Bush administration is considering a plan to provide prescription-drug benefits and catastrophic-illness coverage to seniors as an inducement for them to leave the traditional fee-for-service Medicare program and join private but government-subsidized health care plans.

But when news reports said one plan was the front-runner, the White House firmly denied it. More dust was flung into the air when Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Finance Committee, said he wanted to consider all options "in a common sense way that doesn't break the Medicare bank."

Nevertheless, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, pledged to quickly bring up legislation on Medicare reform.

"Within the next six months, we will address, initially through committee and then on the floor of the United States Senate, the issues surrounding strengthening Medicare, improving Medicare, including making that benefit of prescription drugs available to seniors," Mr. Frist said yesterday.

The president's Medicare plan quickly came under fire yesterday on Capitol Hill.

Democrats and some consumer groups said the plan would deny elderly patients the doctors of their choice by forcing them into health maintenance organizations if they wanted prescription-drug coverage.

"His proposal is really a benefit for HMOs," said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat and House minority leader.

Even some Republicans weren't enthusiastic, with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine saying the "president's focus on ways to reform Medicare could hamper our efforts to pass comprehensive prescription coverage."

The White House chose the conservative western portion of Michigan which he lost in 2000, 51 percent to 46 percent, and dearly hopes to pick up in 2004 for the president's post-speech trip. His motorcade wound through the snow-covered hills for a closed-door meeting with patients, medical professionals and business owners before taking him to a small concert hall.

Along the streets, dozens of demonstrators chanted anti-war slogans. Nearby, dozens of supporters shouted and held a sign that read: "Let's Roll never forget 9/11."

Mr. Bush used his speech yesterday to tout other initiatives in his domestic and international agenda, including a call to cap medical- malpractice awards, allocate money to fight AIDS worldwide and spend more than $1 billion on development of a non-polluting vehicle.

In a sudden openness not seen since the early days of the Bush administration, White House aides offered extensive briefings on and off the record, in person and via conference call covering many of the president's new initiatives.

No official, however, answered questions about the new Medicare plan.

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