With the signing today of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, President Bush has enacted the most extensive changes to the Medicare program since its inception in 1965.
But even as Bush celebrates the new law with certain members of his administration and Congress, the controversy that has plagued bill negotiations for almost six months has not subsided.
"With this law, we're giving older Americans better choices and more control over their health care, so they can receive the modern medical care they deserve," said Bush at the signing ceremony at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.
"With this law, we are providing more access to comprehensive exams, disease screenings and other preventative care, so that seniors across this land can live better and healthier lives," he added. "With this law, we are creating health savings accounts. We do so, so that all Americans can put money away for their health care tax-free."
Meanwhile, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the Committee on Ways and Means, and Pete Stark (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Health -- both excluded from the Medicare conference committee negotiations -- say the bill was crafted to benefit the pharmaceutical industry and HMOs.
"Drug companies get a vast new market without any fear that the government will negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries," Stark says in a written statement. "HMOs get a new $12 billion slush fund and other subsidies to encourage them to participate. These overpayments will allow HMOs to lure seniors into their plans and achieve the ultimate goal of this bill -- privatizing Medicare."
Rangel says, "We will work to undo the damage enacted into law today."
But AMA President Donald Palmisano, M.D., calls the signing "a historic achievement for Medicare and its patients."
"The AMA is proud to have supported this historic legislation for America's seniors and their physicians," Palmisano says in a written statement, lauding the prescription drug benefit, the larger role of health plans and the new option of health savings accounts.
"This important legislation also ensures continued access to care by halting planned Medicare physician payment cuts and replacing the cuts with a payment increase of not less than 1.5% over the next two years," Palmisano says.
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a national organization for healthcare consumers, says the more seniors learn about the new law, the more they dislike it.
"Seniors' dismay about the Medicare legislation is caused by the bizarre and sparse drug benefit; the congressional cave-in to the pharmaceutical lobby that will result in skyrocketing drug prices; and the lavish payments to insurance companies that are designed to push seniors into managed care plans," Pollack says in a written statement.
Healthcare will continue to lead Bush's agenda in 2004, according to his Dec. 6 radio address in which he outlined a six-point economic recovery plan. Bush says his top priority in working with Congress will be to allow small business owners to form association health plans to purchase health insurance and to reform the medical liability system "so that healthcare dollars serve the interest of patients, not the interests of trial lawyers."