Sunday, May 9, 2004


The new Medicare discount drug cards’ clear benefit for low-income seniors is being drowned out in the partisan political tussle about their value, advocates for the elderly say.

Republicans say the cards will help bring down prescription costs, but Democrats say they are practically worthless.

James Firman, president of the National Council on Aging, makes no attempt to conceal his frustration.

“Clearly, things are confusing, and the politics is making it more confusing. The truth is somewhere in the middle,” he said.

Enrollment for the cards began last week, although Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and other officials suggested Medicare beneficiaries window-shop for a couple of weeks before choosing a card.

The cards can be used starting in June, and are the first widely available tangible benefit of last year’s Medicare overhaul, which was bitterly contested and narrowly won approval in the Republican-controlled Congress.

Republicans were eager to take credit for the new law, predicting it would neutralize Democrats’ historical advantage among older voters. Those plans have been slowed by a steady stream of accusations by Democrats about ethical improprieties in drafting, passing and promoting the law.

Now Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration are promising more than the cards probably will deliver, Mr. Firman said. Many advocates believe the card benefits will be small for people who don’t qualify for government aid.

Mr. Thompson and other Republicans are telling audiences around the country that not only will the savings be real, but the online price comparisons will pressure pharmaceutical companies “to bring prices down for everyone.”

Democrats only grudgingly acknowledge the value of a card for low-income people. The cards don’t cost them anything, and each comes with $600 to spend on prescription drugs this year and another $600 in 2005.

In addition, several pharmaceutical companies are planning to provide their medicines for little or no money to low-income card-holders once they have used up their $600.

“Even with this proposal that will allow lower-income seniors a $600 benefit, they are probably going to spend so much time trying to manipulate or make it through the process that they are not going to be able to benefit from this at all,” said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat.

Mr. Firman said he has little patience for such comments.

“It’s crystal clear. Anyone who’s eligible should get it,” he said, speaking of the approach that low-income seniors should take with the cards.

In recent days, some Republicans have begun to seize on what they are calling Democrats’ unwillingness to promote the low-income benefit. More than 7 million Americans are eligible, the administration estimates.

“What I find alarming is that some would try to score political points rather than help low-income beneficiaries get some much-needed help with their drugs,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.

Democratic leaders seemed untroubled by the new line of GOP criticism. Rep. Robert T. Matsui, California Democrat and chairman of House Democrats’ campaign organization, wrote in a memo distributed to reporters that the $40 million the administration has spent to promote the bill so far is not working.

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