With the enrollment deadline barely a month away, President Bush came to Missouri on Tuesday to encourage the millions of people still not signed up for a new Medicare prescription drug benefit to do so quickly.
Bush used a talk-show style format with testimony from several Medicare participants who said they had saved hundreds of dollars a month on their prescription drug benefits since enrolling in the new program.
"This is a good deal," Bush said on more than one occasion as he talked, listened and cracked one-liners on a stage at a Jefferson City performing arts center.
The Republican president's appearance marks the third recent White House visit to Missouri, following fundraisers last night for Sen. Jim Talent featuring Vice President Dick Cheney and last week featuring first lady Laura Bush. Talent also planned to join Bush in Jefferson City.
Democrats claimed the frequent visits show Republicans are concerned about Talent's re-election campaign against Democratic State Auditor Claire McCaskill.
Bush's focus on Medicare comes in advance of a May 15 deadline for seniors to enroll in one of the program's many new private drug plans. People who sign up later could have to pay higher premiums.
Among those sharing the stage with Bush was Jerry Sooter, a retired funeral director from Jefferson City, who said his monthly drug bills fell 65 percent after enrolling in the Medicare benefit.
He signed up over the Internet; others told Bush they had signed up through their insurance agent or by calling a toll-free government help line.
"I found it extremely easy," Sooter said.
Helen Robinette, another Jefferson City retiree, said her prescription drug costs were $300 a month before enrolling in the Medicare drug plan. Now she pays less than $100 a month, and the asthma inhaler that cost her $102 now costs her only $5.
"It's been a godsend," she said.
The audience of several hundred people consisted largely of Bush supporters who had received tickets through the Republican party, the chamber of commerce or a Lutheran senior's home that Bush visited earlier in the day.
McCaskill and Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton, whose district includes Jefferson City, both used Bush's visit to call for the enrollment deadline to be extended. McCaskill suggested the open enrollment period should run through the end of 2006.
The Medicare drug benefit is shaping up as a top issue in Missouri's Senate race.
Talent, who supports it, has held 48 "town hall" prescription drug meetings since Congress passed the law.
"Each month, more and more seniors are signing up to pay less for their prescription drugs or to access a drug benefit for the first time" under the new Medicare plan, Talent said in a written statement released Tuesday before Bush's events.
McCaskill said at a Capitol news conference Tuesday that she supports offering a Medicare drug benefit through private plans. But she complained the Medicare Part D program is too confusing and costs too much. She plans to begin a 10 city RV tour through rural Missouri on Wednesday, focusing on the Medicare plan, access to health care and the need to reduce drug costs for seniors.
"I think it probably needs to be changed to Medicare Part F," McCaskill said. "I think the `D' is too generous of a grade."
A poll released last month showed older Americans have mixed views of the new Medicare drug program. About 44 percent of those surveyed approve of the new benefit, while about 41 percent disapproved and 15 percent were undecided, according to The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Bush is the fourth sitting president to visit Missouri's capital. The last time a president came to Jefferson City was in 2000, when President Bill Clinton attended the funeral of Gov. Mel Carnahan. Missouri native Harry Truman made a number stops while president. And President William Howard Taft also stopped in Jefferson City in 1911 to play golf, said Gary Kremer, executive director of the State Historical Society of Missouri.