GOP sees potential in Medicare plan

Polls signal seniors' anger over drug program easing

May 10, 2006|By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS | JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's campaign-style swing through Florida this week to promote his Medicare prescription drug program reflects a new belief among party strategists that Republicans have neutralized senior citizens' anger about the plan and could even win election-year rewards for having backed it.

The Medicare Part D drug program, having muddled through a badly botched first few months - marked by administrative mix-ups, technological glitches and confusion among seniors - is drawing more positive marks from those who have enrolled, according to public polls.

"This is a good deal for America's seniors, and I'm proud to have signed a law to modernize Medicare," Bush said yesterday at a community college in Coconut Creek, Fla. He urged seniors to take advantage of a "fantastic opportunity" and sign up before Monday's enrollment deadline.

It remains unclear whether voters will reward proponents for adding the drug benefit to Medicare or retaliate against them for creating a confusing program. The issue could have a substantial impact on the November elections because it affects seniors - a potent voting force that traditionally turns out in disproportionate numbers during midterm elections.

Democrats, who plan a rally in Washington today to call for fixes to a program they have branded a "disaster," are counting on voter discontent about the prescription drug benefit to help propel them to victories in November.

"In key races around the country, particularly in communities with large populations of senior citizens that are struggling to get signed up and figure out their options, ... people are extremely frustrated," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat.

Support for the 2003 law that created the drug benefit is among the top reasons voters list for wanting to vote against a Republican candidate, said Sarah Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But for now, Republican strategists are heartened by signs that they have at least quelled voter unrest over the issue, they said.

Republicans are "neutralizing what could have been a potentially bad political issue," said Greg Crist, who advises Republican candidates. "That allows us to perhaps position this debate and this issue to be a net positive, a net winner in certain districts."

It's too early to tell whether the prescription drug measure will motivate voters this fall, said Karlyn Bowman, an American Enterprise Institute analyst, but she added that there is ample evidence that Republicans have stopped their bleeding on the topic.

"While I don't see it as a strong plus for Republicans and the administration, it's certainly much less of a negative than it was," Bowman said of the drug benefit.

Republican strategists, including at the White House, have been circulating polls that show seniors who have enrolled give the program high marks.

But Democrats say the positive reviews reflect what they characterize as an ugly reality of the program, for which 31 million seniors are enrolled: that it is helping healthier, wealthier seniors, many of whom already had some drug coverage, not the poorest and sickest seniors, who need it most.

"Those people who criticized the plan and said that it would cause problems are going to be in a position to look voters in the face and say, `See, I told you this program could have been designed and implemented in better ways,'" said Ron Pollack of the liberal health policy group Families USA.

His group released a report yesterday that said the program had enrolled only a fraction of the poor seniors eligible for the most generous subsidies and pointed out that about two-thirds of enrollees already had some form of drug coverage before the new benefit was created. In Maryland, of an estimated 110,000 seniors eligible for the low-income subsidy, 32,207 - or 29 percent - have signed up, said the report, which found that the national average is even lower, at 24 percent. Of the 499,874 Maryland seniors who have Medicare drug coverage, about two-thirds already had some prescription benefits, the report said; only 152,840 - or 31 percent - are new recipients, slightly above the 29 percent national average.

What could be of more concern to Republicans is that while seniors are generally awarding high marks to the drug program, it remains unpopular with the public, according to the surveys.

That suggests that the Democrats' message about the Medicare prescription drug program - that it is just one on a long laundry list of items decided by Bush and his party based on corporate wishes rather than consumer needs - might be getting through.

"What Republicans have to worry about is not so much a particular senior is making money on this plan and feeling good about the results, as are the Democrats going to be able to score points saying that Republicans are too close to the special interests," said Robert Laszewski, a health policy analyst.

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