President signs Medicare bill providing prescription benefit

Republicans gain victory, seniors are divided and Democrats vow changes

December 09, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A sweeping Medicare bill that for the first time will offer prescription drug coverage to millions of elderly and disabled people and give private insurers a key role was signed into law yesterday by President Bush at a ceremony with a heavy political backdrop.

With senior citizens seated behind him at Constitution Hall near the White House, Bush sealed a legislative victory for himself and his party. For now at least, Bush and the Republicans have seized control of an issue that has long paid dividends for Democrats.

The president said the measure would bring relief to Americans struggling to pay for medicine out of Social Security checks.

The law, with a projected cost of $400 billion over 10 years, represents the largest expansion of Medicare since its creation in 1965. In addition to easing the burden of prescription costs, the measure will provide better access to medical exams, screenings and other preventive care, the president said.

He also praised the new health "savings accounts," which would let seniors set aside tax-free money to spend on medical care, giving them "better choices and more control," Bush said.

"We have pledged to help our citizens find affordable medical care in the later years," he said. "Lyndon Johnson established that commitment by signing the Medicare Act of 1965. And today, by reforming and modernizing this vital program, we are honoring the commitments."

The signing sets the stage for furious battles in Congress and on the campaign trail, where it is likely to become an issue in the 2004 presidential race.

Stepping up their criticism of the measure, Democrats accused Bush and his Republican allies of what amounts to a demolition of Medicare as envisioned by Johnson, giving new influence over the program to private drug companies and rolling back long-held benefits.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken over the weekend showed a deeply divided senior population, with 46 percent of respondents saying they support the law's drug benefit and 39 percent opposing it. Eighty-five percent said they worry that the law does not offer enough drug coverage.

In Congress, many Democrats vowed to change elements of the law to reduce prescription drug costs far more. In a first step, Democrats introduced legislation to scrap a GOP-backed provision that bars the government from negotiating lower drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.

"You sold us out," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, delivering his message to Republicans. "So we're going to go all out to repeal what you've done."

Meanwhile, Democrats competing for Bush's job are vowing to run against his record on Medicare. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut called the new law "rotten" and complained that Republicans had harmfully reshaped a version he had supported in the Senate.

"The Republicans took a responsible, bipartisan plan, pried it open and stuffed it full of poison pills that serve special interests instead of helping seniors," Lieberman said.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, countered: "Democrats have no one to blame but themselves for their abject failure on health care. We wanted a bill, they just wanted an issue, and now the American people know who took their concerns seriously."

A gamble for Bush

Though the measure seems to serve the president's political interests, his investment of political capital in changing Medicare, which serves 40 million elderly and disabled people, is nevertheless a gamble.

On the one hand, his advisers are ready to hold up Medicare reform as evidence that Bush kept his promise to pursue a "compassionate" agenda. On the other, Democrats predict that Americans will begin to turn against the president as more of them realize that the measure ill serves seniors and richly rewards drug companies.

Seniors represent a sizable voting bloc, including in the crucial swing state of Florida, and how they view the Medicare debate at election time could have important consequences.

Just before both houses of Congress voted to pass the bill last month, AARP, the traditionally liberal-leaning group that represents 35 million seniors, endorsed the measure, lending enormous credibility to Bush's efforts.

Other groups, such as the Alliance for Retired Americans, which represents 3 million retirees, are mobilizing opposition.

"It's disgraceful that members of Congress have passed a bad bill so they can go home and claim a hollow political victory," the group said. "This is a sad day for America's seniors."

The heart of the law, the drug coverage, will not take effect until 2006. As a stopgap, seniors will be offered a drug discount card, at a cost of $30, this summer. The card will bring 10 percent to 25 percent discounts on many prescription drugs, supporters of the law say.

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