- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

President Bush yesterday acknowledged his signature prescription-drug program has confused seniors but said the program is a good deal for those who do sign up and is proving to be cheaper than expected for taxpayers.

“We had some early challenges,” Mr. Bush said, though he noted that the “confusion initially” stemmed from having so many good options and seniors now are getting the help they need to enroll.

Speaking to seniors in Canandaigua, N.Y., the president said the program has shown early successes in keeping prices low because so many providers signed up to deliver the drug benefit. He said competition has reduced the expected monthly premium from $37 to $25.

Mr. Bush signed the program into law three years ago, but the drug benefit did not take effect until this year. Mr. Bush is fighting criticism from conservatives who say the program costs too much and should be delayed or revamped, and from lawmakers of both parties who say it doesn’t do enough to bring down prices for seniors.

Top House Democrats wrote a letter to Mr. Bush yesterday asking him to postpone the May 15 deadline to sign up for the program. Seniors eligible for Medicare who sign up late face a penalty surcharge, which Democrats call the “Bush prescription drug tax.”

“Seniors should not be forced to pay the price for the president’s confusing prescription drug plan,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Congressional offices said they received plenty of complaints from confused seniors trying to sign up for a program, but America’s Health Insurance Plans, an industry group, commissioned a survey that found the vast majority of seniors were saving money on drug costs, had no problems registering and would recommend enrollment to their friends.

Mr. Bush said the program is also a solid deal for taxpayers, and the costs this year are more than 20 percent lower than initial projections.

The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the cost for fiscal 2006 dropped from $32.1 billion in initial projections to $22.9 billion, but fell just 1 percent during the 2005-13 time frame.

Democrats think they can run against the program in November’s congressional elections, arguing that the program is an example of the president’s putting the interests of corporations over those of voters.

“The Medicare drug program has been a nightmare for America’s seniors and is clear evidence of the Bush administration’s shocking incompetence,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. He said the administration should have known about the early problems and compared the Bush response to “their incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina.”

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