McCain: Affluent Seniors Should Pay More for Drug Benefit

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown speaking to visiting journalists, will offer a drug benefit plan today.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), shown speaking to visiting journalists, will offer a drug benefit plan today. (By Mary Altaffer -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Sen. John McCain will propose today that affluent seniors pay more for government-provided drug benefits as a way to control health-care spending, aides said in previewing a major speech on economics that the Arizona Republican will deliver in Pittsburgh.

The proposal is similar to a controversial one put forth last fall by President Bush, in which married retirees who make more than $160,000 a year would pay increasingly higher costs for the newly established Medicare prescription drug plans.

"When we added the prescription drug benefit . . . we included a lot of people that can well afford to pay for their own prescription drugs," said Carly Fiorina, a former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard and a top adviser to McCain's presidential campaign, saying "that reform alone saves billions of dollars."

Fiorina said seniors could still choose whether to participate in Medicare "Part D," which provides subsidized drug benefits. Under McCain's proposal, affluent seniors would pay higher premiums than retirees who are less well off when they join.

That idea has been part of Bush's budget submissions for the past two years. It has been greeted coldly by both Congress and AARP, which says it erodes the delicate deal that Republicans brokered in creating the popular prescription drug benefit in 2003.

Last October, Bush signaled he would try again, working with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who has been a champion of the idea.

"I will be looking constantly for ways to put this before the Senate," Ensign said at the time.

McCain aides said yesterday that the drug benefit changes reflect a desire on the part of the all-but-certain GOP nominee to control government spending. They said the specifics of who would pay more, and how much, would be worked out later.

"You could make this as aggressive as you want to get more savings," said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, McCain's top policy adviser.

Democrats accused McCain of offering "nothing new" in the way of cures for an ailing economy.

"His answer for people struggling with skyrocketing drug prices is to make some people pay more?" asked Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, after the aides finished a conference call with reporters yesterday evening.

Earlier, the DNC issued a statement saying that the elements of McCain's health plan are "copies of President Bush's, won't reduce the ranks of the uninsured, and would leave people with preexisting conditions uninsured."

McCain's drug proposal is one part of a broader speech that aides described as "big and ambitious." He will deliver it at Carnegie Mellon University this morning.

In it, aides said McCain will also call for "a pause" in discretionary spending increases to allow for a "top-down review" of all government programs and agencies except veterans benefits and military spending. That proposal also mirrors the freeze in discretionary spending that Bush has had in place the past several years.

Fiorina and Holtz-Eakin said McCain will propose greater transparency in government by posting the results of the reviews in "plain and simple English" on the Internet. He will also again call for a freeze in adding to the nation's strategic petroleum reserves to ease pressure on gas prices.

In addition, McCain will reiterate his plan to help struggling homeowners by allowing some access to federal mortgage assistance, they said.

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