WASHINGTON – President Bush said Friday that Republicans are missing an opportunity if they're not talking up the Medicare drug benefit while campaigning this election season.
"I think this is a fantastic program, but more importantly, so do the seniors," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The drug program was rife with problems at the outset, but reports indicate that in recent months it has been operating smoothly. The administration estimates that the average elderly or disabled person will save about $1,100 annually on medicine.
Polls indicate that most participants are satisfied.
"My own view is our candidates and the people who voted for this ought to be out there traveling to senior centers all over their districts and their state saying, 'Look what we did,"' Bush said.
Democrats, however, say revising the plan would be a first order of business if they regain control of Congress.
The program allows seniors and the disabled to enroll in private plans that negotiate drug prices with manufacturers. The program is subsidized by the federal government and is expected to cost about $30 billion this year.
Democratic lawmakers say the government should do the price negotiations, using its considerable purchasing power to lower the cost for seniors. Also, many Democrats would like to simplify the program by letting the government administer a plan instead of relying on dozens of private insurers.
Seniors would flock to the government-administered plan, Democrats say, because it would more closely resemble how they use Medicare to pay for visits to the family doctor.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., promises that Democrats would move quickly to give the secretary of health and human services negotiation powers, similar to the way the Veterans Affairs Department negotiates prices for the drugs that it covers.
"As pharmaceutical companies reap record profits, it's clear the president's flawed prescription drug plan is working better for drug companies than it is for America's seniors," Pelosi said Friday. "It is no wonder that the Republican prescription drug bill actually bars Medicare from negotiating lower drug prices for seniors."
But the president said that he likes having dozens of private insurance plans competing for business, that the competition leads to better prices and service.
"There is a fundamental disagreement and that is: Who should be making decisions for consumers?" Bush said. "Obviously there's a group of folks that feel like the government can do a better job than the consumers themselves. We strongly believe that empowering consumers is the appropriate way to promote quality in health care."
"As a matter of fact, we will resist any changes to weaken the program."
Bush participated in a small roundtable on the drug benefit with a couple from Springfield, Va., pharmacy representatives, a caregiver who helped her aunt enroll and the administrator of a non-profit agency that helps low-income beneficiaries enroll.
Karen Smith, a pharmacist in Washington, told Bush that she believes the program has helped many of her customers.
"I would actually have customers who could only buy five pills at a time because of the cost of their medication. Since Medicare, I don't see that any more," Smith said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation says its polling shows more than eight in 10 seniors who are enrolled in a Medicare drug plan are satisfied, although almost two in 10 say they encountered a major problem in using it.
The president praised Health and Human Services officials for working to overcome some early problems with the rollout of the benefit. Glitches continue but with much less frequency. For instance, the agency that oversees the benefit recently erroneously reimbursed about 230,000 people for premiums they had paid this year. Now the government wants its money back.