President Bush this morning urged Congress to pass Medicare reform legislation and says he wants "to sign that legislation into law before the year is out."
Bush addressed only one of the measures--protection of employer-sponsored drug benefits--that Senate Democrats have insisted must be included in the final report of the House-Senate conference committee.
"The legislation Congress passes must make sure that the prescription drug coverage provided to many retirees by their employers is not undermined," Bush says. "Medicare legislation should encourage employers to continue benefits, while also extending drug coverage to the millions of Medicare beneficiaries who now lack it."
Bush says he has been assured by a corporate executive from Caterpillar that "if there's a Medicare reform bill signed by me, corporations have no intention to . . . dump retirees into a system they don't want to be dumped into."
Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) says after meeting with Bush earlier today, he was concerned that the news from the conference is that seniors will pay more for the same benefits they get now. "Virtually every single one of the issues raised so far has come down on the wrong side," Daschle says, citing premiums, the notion of privatizing Medicare, the loss of private-sector retirement programs and Medicare spending caps.
"My hope is that (Bush) is not simply going to say, 'Bring us a bill, get the work done,'" Daschle says. "If that's the only message, then I think the president is failing to use his influence to move this legislative process along successfully. He can bring these matters to successful resolution if he weighs in, but he's got to weigh in with a recognition that we have two parties and they are very evenly divided here in the Congress."
In his remarks, Bush stuck to his mantra of modernizing Medicare to give beneficiaries more choice.
"The best way to provide our seniors with modern medicine, including prescription drug coverage and better preventative care, is to give them better choices under Medicare," Bush says. "If seniors have choices, health plans will compete for their business by offering better coverage at more affordable prices."
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a not-for-profit organization for healthcare consumers, says the president and congressional leaders should drop any plans to privatize Medicare.
"Private health plans refuse to serve seniors in rural areas and they abandon communities deemed unprofitable," Pollack says in a written statement. "These plans 'cherry pick' and fail to serve seniors with health problems. They often restrict seniors' choices of doctors and hospitals. And, because of marketing expenses, agents' fees, profits, and larger administrative costs, these private health plans are far more expensive than traditional Medicare."
Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., says Bush should abandon the Medicare bill because the drug benefit would cost too much.
"(The current legislation) would create a costly new entitlement, balloon the deficit, and leave massively higher taxes for our children and grandchildren to pay," Tanner says in a written statement. "Congress should scrap this expensive boondoggle and start over with true Medicare reform."
HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson weighed in moments after Bush's speech in an online discussion on the White House Web page.
Thompson says the administration is adjusting Medicare payment and reimbursement formulas as it adds prescription drug coverage and provides more preventive care. Thompson's most specific remarks on the physician payment issue came in answer to a question about whether he and Bush support provisions in the Senate Medicare legislation that address inequities in reimbursement for physicians in rural areas.
"I not only support but enthusiastically push . . . the rural package advanced by Sens. (Max) Baucus (D-Mont.) and (Chuck) Grassley (R-Iowa)," Thompson says. "I am delighted that we are coming close to an improvement on the reimbursement formulas for the rural areas."