- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005

President Bush, the first since John Quincy Adams not to veto a single bill during his initial term, yesterday threatened to kill any attempt by Congress to reduce prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

“I signed Medicare reform proudly and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors and to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto,” he said during a swearing-in ceremony for Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt.

The comment was a response to grumbling from Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill that the cost of Medicare will become too high when millions of elderly and disabled Americans begin receiving a prescription drug benefit in January. Democrats want to reduce the cost of the program by importing drugs from Canada or mandating the U.S. government to directly negotiate drug prices, both of which are opposed by the White House.

“This is an attempt by the president to stop the bipartisan groundswell for drug reimportation and price negotiation,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat. “The only individuals threatening to take away seniors’ benefits through reductions and caps are Republicans, and the president does not need to threaten a veto to stop them.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan discounted Mr. Reid’s assertion that price negotiations by the federal government would substantially reduce prescription drug costs.

“There would not be any significant savings through that approach,” he said. “The approach that was put in place — where private plans can negotiate those prices — is an approach that is going to provide seniors with significant savings.”

As for importing drugs from Canada, the president has long expressed concerns about safety.

“When a drug comes in from Canada, I want to make sure it cures you and doesn’t kill you,” he said in a presidential debate in October. “I’ve got an obligation to make sure our government does everything we can to protect you. And what my worry is, is that, you know, it looks like it’s from Canada, and it might be from a third world.”

Yesterday, Mr. Reid accused the president of giving unfair advantages to health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and the pharmaceutical industry when he signed the Medicare reform bill in 2003.

“Make no mistake, the president’s blanket veto threat is designed to protect only special interests, the big drug companies and HMOs his flawed bill gave billions to in the new law,” he said.

Mr. McClellan, while not mentioning the Senate minority leader by name, accused Democrats of “trying to move forward on an attempt to undermine the reforms that we put in place.” He sought to assure seniors that the attempt would be thwarted.

“We made a promise to you — we’re going to keep our word,” he said. “We’re not going to let anybody undermine these important reforms that we are working on putting in place right now.”

But even some conservatives are concerned about the cost of the Medicare drug benefit, which is estimated at $724 billion for the decade starting next year, when the program takes effect.

Before the legislation was passed in 2003, the White House told Congress the benefit would cost $400 billion over 10 years, but that estimate included the years 2004 and 2005, when costs would be minimal.

Some prominent Republicans joined many Democrats this week in criticizing the increase. Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, raised the prospect of adjusting the prescription drug benefit.

“I do think we are going to have to go back and readdress it,” Mr. Gregg said.

Mr. Bush said scaling back benefits would be a major setback for senior citizens.

“We all know the alternative to reform: A Medicare system that offers outdated benefits and imposes needless costs,” he said. “For decades we promised America’s seniors that we can do better — and we finally did. Now we must keep our word.”

The president suggested that Mr. Leavitt would be able to fend off congressional attempts to roll back the prescription drug benefit.

“He has a proven ability to move beyond the partisan debate, to work with leaders at all levels of government and to improve the lives of the people he serves,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Leavitt acknowledged the political acrimony that pervades Washington.

“Mr. President, it’s occurred to me that Washington is a little like Dodge City,” he said.

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