Bush Prods Congress on Medicare
President Indicates Support for Reshaping Health Insurance for Elderly
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 11, 2003; 3:31 PM
CHICAGO, June 11 -- President Bush today gave a strong endorsement to Congress's efforts to reshape the nation's health insurance system for the elderly, praising "a growing consensus" on Capitol Hill over the future of Medicare and predicting that both the House and Senate would pass legislation to overhaul the program before July 4.
While Bush stopped short of an outright endorsement of Medicare legislation being drafted in Congress, he gave no indication that he opposed the changes favored by influential Senate and House Republicans. However, the plans being drafted by Congress have spurned the White House's goal of trying to coax older Americans to join private health plans by offering them more help in paying for medicine if they do.
Speaking here on the eve of congressional deliberations on Medicare, the president laid out a broad justification for fundamental changes to one of the largest and most popular government programs -- including the first large-scale federal subsidies for elderly patients' prescription drugs -- and exhorted Congress to act with speed.
"I'm here to urge Congress not to miss the opportunity," Bush said. "Now is the time to get the job done."
He alluded only briefly to his belief -- shared partly, but not as ardently by many congressional Republicans -- that the private sector should play a far greater role in what has largely been a government-run program . "Health care moves faster than bureaucracy," he said.
Bush's remarks came the day before the Senate Finance Committee is to begin voting on a Medicare plan, which has broad bipartisan support and would make the most profound changes in the program's 38-year history. The $400 billion bill seeks to foster a larger role for private health plans in caring for the elderly by relying on preferred-provider networks, which tend to be more popular than HMOs. The drug coverage envisioned in the plan would represent the largest expansion of Medicare benefits in the program's history, although some Democrats and advocates for the elderly contend that it does not furnish enough help.
The Senate legislation was still being refined today, and Democratic leaders said that they intended to try to alter the plan during the committee's deliberations this week
On Capitol Hill, Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) echoed Bush's upbeat assessment of prospects for the bill's passage and indicated he may vote for the measure, especially if changes are made to assure more generous and equitable coverage.
"I think it [a drug bill] will pass," Daschle told reporters after a news conference today in which he and other Democrats charged that the bill now before the Finance Committee falls short of seniors' need for help in buying medicine and outlined amendments they will offer to expand the measure.
Daschle's prediction of passage for the bill -- and hint of possible support -- was especially significant because he has been among the strongest critics of the Finance Committee draft and his caucus is sharply divided over the measure.
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