RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. – President Bush tried Monday to drum up support for a Medicare (search) prescription drug benefit that begins next year, encouraging audiences to learn about the new plan even if they don't want to sign up.
"Some folks simply don't want any change, and I understand that completely. But I urge you to take a look," the president said at a senior citizens center.
Bush said the program contains many options for consumers. "The more options available, the more likely it is you're going to get what you want," he said.
Focusing on a domestic issue amid rising criticism of his handling of the Iraq war, the president spent the day pitching the benefit program here and in Arizona. He also was traveling to San Diego, where he planned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II with a speech Tuesday that would also reference the Iraq war. First lady Laura Bush was traveling with him.
The events were hundreds of miles from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, where anti-war activists have dogged him since he arrived there in early August. Still, a couple hundred demonstrators followed him.
In Arizona, Bush opponents carried signs including "Is Osama in Iraq? Then Why Are We?" In this city east of Los Angeles, anti-war protesters chanting "Impeach Bush" on one corner faced a pro-Bush crowd singing "God Bless America" and waving American flags on the opposite corner.
In both stops, the president told residents he would work with governors in the Southwest to secure the border and address illegal immigration. "There's more we can do," Bush said at a recreation center in El Mirage, Ariz. "We have an obligation to enforce the border."
On Medicare, the president said he understands "that many seniors don't want to change. And, that they're not interested in change."
"If you're worried about change, you do not have to change when it comes to Medicare. But if you're someone, for example, who's having to struggle between food and medicine, those days are over with," he said.
As the president made his remarks, the Department of Health and Human Services announced that the government will offer prescription drug coverage with lower premiums than expected.
The department had said enrollees would pay a monthly premium averaging about $32, and millions of poor people would pay nothing. It had said beneficiaries would also have a $250 deductible, meaning they would have to pay that amount for their prescriptions before the drug plan covered expenses. Again, millions of poor beneficiaries would not have any deductible.
But on Tuesday, the department said people in each state, except Alaska, will have the choice of at least one plan that offers some benefit for a monthly premium under $20.
"We're going to help people get a good fit," Medicare chief Mark McClellan told reporters traveling on Air Force One.
Enrollment in the benefit program starts Nov. 15. When it takes effect Jan. 1, about 43 million beneficiaries will be able to choose from two or more private plans that offer drug coverage.
Congress approved the benefit as part of a Medicare overhaul law Bush pushed in 2003 to help seniors cope with skyrocketing drug costs. But critics, mainly Democrats, argue that the benefit program is too complex and doesn't cover enough drugs.
Lukewarm public interest in the program prompted administration officials and outside groups to launch publicity efforts over the past few months. Congress allocated about $300 million to an awareness campaign. And more than 40 groups have formed a coalition to urge people to sign up for the program,
Those efforts may be paying off. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey released last week found for the first time that people were as likely to have a favorable view of the plan as to have an unfavorable view. Still, the survey found more people do not plan to enroll than do.