Bush notes Medicare maze

President acknowledges complexity of drug benefit program


WASHINGTON -- With the Medicare prescription benefit scheduled to take effect in less than three weeks, President Bush acknowledged yesterday that navigating the complex program can be a challenge - a complaint often voiced by its detractors.

And a leading consumer group released a report yesterday on how seniors can get bargains from the prescription benefit without sacrificing quality.

"We fully recognize that for some seniors, that this is a daunting task," Bush said after meeting with residents at the Greenspring Village Retirement Community in suburban Virginia. "When you give people choice and options, it can be a situation where people say, `This is something I may not want to do.'"

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president did not intend to criticize the drug benefit - one of the main achievements of his administration - but was relaying concerns from a retiree he had just finished talking to at Greenspring. The campus-like facility is home to many middle-class seniors, including a sizable contingent of federal retirees.

Bush urged Medicare beneficiaries to enroll in the prescription program, saying it is "a good deal for our seniors."

Meanwhile, Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, said seniors who sign up for the benefit could save thousands of dollars by switching from costly brand name drugs to lower-priced medicines that independent researchers have identified as equally effective.

The organization has posted a selection of such drugs on the Web at CRBestBuyDrugs.org. It covers 10 broad classes of medications, including drugs for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, pain and arthritis, and antidepressants. More types of drugs are being added gradually.

Because of all the possible combinations of choices being provided through private plans - in some cases more than 40 plans are being offered - Bush urged family members, health professionals and volunteers to help seniors decide.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he was hearing complaints that many volunteers, and even telephone counselors employed by Medicare, were confused.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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