Bush Repeats Medicare Rx Plan Mantra

President Bush acknowledged some shake-down problems with the new Medicare prescription drug program, but defended the plan overall in a visit Wednesday to a retirement community.

Bush participated in a town hall meeting at Riderwood, a large retirement community of about 3,000 in Maryland. Calling the plan a "cost-effective decision for our seniors," the president encouraged audience members to examine their insurance options.

"I really urge you to take a look," Bush said. "Take a look at what's available. I think you're going to like what you see."

Dubbing himself an "educator in chief," Bush answered questions from residents on topics ranging from the problems of the uninsured to the importance of electronic records. He also stressed the importance of a grassroots effort in educating senior citizens about their plan options.

"I think it's your responsibility to help your mom," the president told one woman attending the event. "The best grassroots outreach is child to parent."

Much has been made of the confusion and loopholes present in Medicare's new Part D prescription drug plan. The program got off to a chaotic start in January as seniors struggled to try and choose the right plan for their medicine and pharmacy needs. Criticism of the plan has been unrelenting as Bush's administration works to fix enrollment problems.

Bush admitted, "It can be confusing to people," and added, "In the end it is a really good deal."

Democrats in Maryland's congressional delegation and unions mounted a pre-emptive response, holding a news conference earlier in the day to highlight problems their constituents have experienced getting medication.

Protesters gathered at the National Labor College to discuss perceived problems with the plan arrived shouting, "Real Medicare Now!"

"We can do better and must do better, Mr. President," said Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a Senate candidate. "Millions of people are going to be worse off, Mr. President . . . Millions of Americans have taken a look and they don't like what they see."

Cardin advocated for his own bill, the Preserving Medicare for All Act, HR-2487, that he says will fix some of the problems in the new plan, in one instance by protecting retiree health care plans that offer a drug benefit.

"Medicare Part D, the way it's written now, the 'D' is for disaster. The sad part about this is we could've done so much better," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "It's not designed to be senior-friendly . . . This was written by and for the pharmaceutical industry."

Also chiming in with dissatisfaction was Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who said in a letter Wednesday, "The people of Maryland need solutions, not photo opportunities and political rhetoric. The new Medicare prescription drug program (Part D) is a mess."

Union officials at the Wednesday event agreed. Calling the plan, "Costly, confusing, complicated and corrupt," Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said that Part D does not provide affordable drugs to senior citizens.

Trumka also expressed concern over the upcoming May 15 deadline, and the penalty charges seniors will incur if they sign up late.

Bush was opposed to any flexibility on deadline.

"Rolling back deadlines is not going to help your mom make good decisions," he told the Riderwood audience. "The time is now."

Seniors could begin signing up as early as last fall, with the program starting in January. Eligible seniors can continue to enroll through May 15, after which time they may face a penalty when they sign up.

Residents of Riderwood were able to sign up for the plan after Bush's speech.

Claire Hughes, 81, a resident of the community for more than five years, hasn't signed up for a plan yet.

"I have to look into it a little bit," she said. "I want to understand it more clearly."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.