- The Washington Times - Monday, August 22, 2005

Medicare’s new Republican-created prescription-drug benefit rolls out this fall and the party has a lot to gain — or lose — heading into the next election, depending on how well the program is received.

That’s why Republican lawmakers were told by their leaders to spend their August break preparing constituents and, most importantly, signing up seniors up for the drug program, which was initially created by the Medicare legislation that Republicans pushed through Congress in 2003.

“It’s got to be rolled out. It’s got to be talked about,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, adding that Democrats will actively discourage seniors from signing up for the benefit.

“I’m going to be the number one” person signing up seniors for the program, said Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican.

Republicans are betting the new drug program will be a success with seniors and will help them next election season. But the party could suffer politically or lose power on other issues if it doesn’t go well, or if seniors complain.

“There is a lot riding on it,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican and vice chairman of the House Republican Conference. He said Democrats who “love to play the senior scare-tactic card” will snipe at the new program and Republicans could “lose a lot if we did not get out there and sell [it].”

“If we don’t have a smooth implementation [of the Medicare drug program] people aren’t going to trust us on Social Security,” said Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania, who, like other Republicans, is meeting this month with nursing home administrators and others involved in the rollout.

Medicare’s prescription-drug discount card, created under the 2003 legislation, attracted much less enrollment than Republicans had hoped. But Republican leaders seem confident the larger drug program will do much better and will help their party.

“We believe … seniors will be very interested,” Mr. Kingston said. “This is our golden opportunity to come back strong and say we delivered on an important promise.”

“We will be successful at this,” agreed Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, citing town halls and other Republican outreach efforts.

But Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said Republicans are just trying to “minimize political damage or try to take some credit” for the program, but it hasn’t been well-received so far.

“Seniors are quite confused about what benefit they qualify for and what they’ll be getting,” she said, adding that the program isn’t as generous as it could have been either.

Under the voluntary program, a senior would pay a $250 annual deductible and then the government would pay 75 percent of their drug costs up to $2,250. The senior then would have to pay the full cost until drug costs hit $3,600, at which point the government would pick up 95 percent of the tab.

The new benefit officially begins Jan. 1.

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