MAPLE GROVE, Minn. – President Bush on Friday portrayed the government's new Medicare prescription drug plan (search) as a great bargain for seniors, but he said that persuading all of them to sign up will be "a massive education assignment."
"It makes people nervous" when they are told to fill out government forms, Bush said. But he said that enrolling for the new benefit is relatively easy, requiring answering 16 simple questions on a four-page form. Democrats, however, argue that the program is overly complex and has large gaps in coverage.
Taking a break from promoting his embattled Social Security (search) restructuring plan, the president expressed concerns that benefits of the new Medicare plan, which takes effect this coming Jan. 1, would not be initially appreciated by many of the 42 million Americans who receive Medicare benefits.
That's why he began his national selling campaign so early, Bush told an invitation-only audience of 300 to 400 people at a community center in this heavily Republican suburb of Minneapolis.
"It's a good deal. This isn't political talk. This is true," Bush said.
Starting Oct. 1, information about prescription drug coverage will be available to seniors as well as people with developmental and physical disabilities, mental illnesses or HIV/ AIDS.
Enrollment starts Nov. 15, and the benefit begins Jan. 1. The program was part of a Medicare overhaul law pushed by Bush and signed into law in December 2003.
"It's a good deal for everybody, but it's a really good deal for low-income seniors," Bush said. "You don't want people choosing between medicine and food."
Participant Steven Preston, who owns a group of small pharmacies, told Bush: "I see them (the elderly poor) every day struggle with costs ... skipping days, not getting their prescriptions at all. It's going to be wonderful that there's a program out there that helps all seniors."
Low-income seniors — individuals earning less than $15,000 a year or couples earning less than $19,000 — would have roughly 95 percent of their prescription drug costs covered under the plan.
Before the forum, Bush met separately with a group of volunteers who will help explain the program to seniors.
"This is a good deal for seniors. Thanks for spreading the word," he said. "We have a massive education assignment ahead of us."
Medicare administration Mark McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One that "people with limited incomes have been a hard population to reach in previous new government benefits." Thus the early start, he said.
Bush kicked off the campaign on Thursday with a speech in Washington.
Bush visited this swing state eight times last year but lost it to Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 election.
Maple Grove and its smaller neighbors gave him 59 percent of their votes in 2004, compared with the roughly 48 percent he overall in the state.
A May poll by the Star Tribune of Minneapolis had Bush's approval rating in Minnesota at 42 percent, the lowest of his presidency.
Maple Grove administrator Al Madsen said the affluent community has an active senior population. He said more than 1,700 seniors take part in programs run through the community center where Bush spoke.
"The president was looking for a good example of suburbia and we're it," Madsen said.
Bush urged caregivers, sons and daughters and community and faith-based groups to help seniors understand what's available and encourage them to fill out the forms.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., criticized the program, calling it "inadequate and overly complex." He said the government's materials explaining the benefit do not provide details about the gaps in prescription drug coverage.
"If the president's goal is truly education, the president owes it to senior citizens and people with disabilities to be upfront about the gaps in coverage," Stark said.
After the beneficiary pays a $250 deductible, Medicare pays three-fourths of the next $2,250 in drug costs. There is no benefit between $2,250 and $5,100, a $2,850 gap in coverage. But once a beneficiary has spent $3,600 on drugs out-of-pocket, including the deductible and copays, the government pays all but 5 percent of additional drug costs.