- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Republicans yesterday joined in the administration’s aggressive effort to promote and defend the new Medicare prescription drug law — trotting out senior citizens who expect to see cost savings this year.

Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, rejected Democrats’ contention that only big drug companies and insurance companies benefit from the new law, which President Bush signed in December. “The beneficiaries are standing right behind me, the seniors of America,” he said during a press event yesterday.

The event — presided over by Mr. Santorum and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican — featured seniors who said they will see reduced co-payments and premiums this year under the new Medicare law.

Even though the prescription drug benefit doesn’t start until 2006, one of the law’s immediate changes is that it boosts payments to existing Medicare Plus Choice plans — giving these private companies $1.3 billion in the next two years, and requiring them to pass the savings along to seniors.

House Republicans sent a letter to their members yesterday explaining this. And Senate Republican leaders gathered their troops yesterday afternoon to explain how best to answer questions and educate the public about the new law.

The public relations effort comes as the administration continues to run television ads explaining the law — ads Democrats contend are illegal for the administration to use.

The General Accounting Office started investigating the ad issue on Monday.

Today, Democratic Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Frank R. Lautenberg of New Jersey are planning to call on Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to stop the ad campaign until the GAO completes the inquiry.

Mr. Thompson faced questions about the ads during his testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee yesterday. He and other Republicans said they are just trying to ensure that the public hears the truth about the complex new legislation.

Critics say Republican leaders and Mr. Bush are trying to coordinate a communications campaign because they’re nervous about public reaction to the new law as elections approach.

Mr. Kennedy said he didn’t see any Republicans stand when Mr. Bush mentioned the new Medicare law during his State of the Union address.

“That says it all,” Mr. Kennedy said.

The law also has drawn criticism from conservative Republicans who say it’s too costly, and from Democrats who say it threatens traditional Medicare by giving away billions to big drug and insurance companies.

The program encountered another major problem recently when the Bush administration’s cost estimate for the new law turned out to be almost $140 billion more than the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate.

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