Bush waffles over Medicare overhaul

Sunday, March 2, 2003

March 3, 2003

WASHINGTON - There's a chance President Bush could flesh out his long-awaited plans for overhauling Medicare on Tuesday of this week when he is scheduled to address the American Medical Association, according to Reuters news service.

But if he does, look for the proposal to partially retreat from earlier, much-criticized plans that aim to require Medicare's 40 million participants to enroll in a managed-care type plan in order to receive drug coverage, sources told Reuters.

CMS Administrator Tom Scully, speaking last week on C-SPAN's "Washington Journal," defended the Administration. He said the Bush Administration is "not backing off anything because we didn't put anything out" formally on Medicare reform. According to Scully, several options on Medicare reform were presented to President Bush two months ago and one of those options - which said beneficiaries who joined private health plans would have access to a drug benefit - "leaked out and caused a lot of fervor" but that was not the official plan. Scully added that the administration would "hopefully have some [plan] out soon" which would be "thorough but flexible enough to work with Congress to get something done."

Democrats have accused Bush of seeking to "privatize" Medicare by forcing seniors into privately run plans.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer on Friday declined to discuss details of the Bush plan, but said it would not force seniors into managed care.

" The president believes that the best way to save Medicare is to get prescription drugs to seniors, to modernize the programs, and to give people more choices and better benefits," he said.

However, congressional and administration sources said last week the president's plan would still provide strong incentives for Medicare participants to switch to managed care.

Under a plan under discussion last week, participants in the traditional Medicare program would receive only a modest drugs benefit, probably in the form of a discount card that could be used at a pharmacy as well as coverage for catastrophic drug expenses.

One source told Reuters that the catastrophic coverage plan for traditional Medicare participants could require participants to pay as much as $7,000 for drugs each year before government aid kicks in.