President Promotes Medicare Drug Plan

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

MAPLE GROVE, Minn., June 17 -- President Bush marketed the new Medicare prescription drug plan Friday in a visit to a community center here, before going to Camp David for the weekend.

Bush told a crowd of 400 that the drug benefit will save retirees an average of $1,300 a year. "So this is a plan that says for folks, 'Sign up; you get a good benefit,' " he said at the Maple Grove Community Center. Speaking for less than 30 minutes, Bush called the drug plan a "good deal" more than half a dozen times.

"This isn't political talk, this is true," he said. "And I encourage people to take a look at this program."

Younger adults, Bush argued, have a responsibility to guide parents, neighbors and patients through the sign-up process when it begins in the fall. "Do your duty; help your mom and dad," he said. "They helped you; now you help them."

Although prescription drug coverage will not be available until Jan. 1, the administration believes it needs several months to recruit older Americans to a new, complicated program.

In three straight days of Medicare talk by Bush and his top health advisers, few specifics have been offered, and no one has addressed the looming budget shortfall in the popular program. A report issued three months ago by the trustees for Medicare and Social Security warned that the trust fund for the health program will be depleted in 2020, or about 20 years before Social Security will be bankrupt.

"Medicare's financial outlook has deteriorated dramatically over the past five years and is now much worse than Social Security's," the pair of independent trustees wrote.

In style and tone, the Minnesota visit mirrored Social Security events Bush has staged across the country for the past four months. Seated before an audience of invited guests, he chatted with an elderly volunteer, the center director, a pharmacist and a 30-year-old woman who cares for her mentally ill mother.

Bush touted the "choices" afforded seniors under the new drug plan. Private plans chosen by the government will offer stand-alone drug packages and comprehensive managed care plans that include medications.

In general, after an individual pays a $250 annual deductible, Medicare will cover 75 percent of drug costs up to $2,250. The coverage then stops until the recipient has spent an additional $2,850 out-of-pocket, after which Medicare covers 95 percent of drug costs.

Insurers will be able to alter benefit packages even after a senior has signed up. One of the administration's strongest critics, Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), said that provision is "the real trap" and "then they're stuck in a plan that doesn't have the drugs they hoped they would get."

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