WASHINGTON -- President Bush told key lawmakers Monday that he wants to try to restructure Medicare this year, speeding up a goal his advisers had said could take years to complete.
The lawmakers said Bush had urged them to "move expeditiously" and to "think globally." They said they took that to mean looking at fundamental changes to the financing of Medicare -- the government's medical insurance plan for senior citizens -- rather than simply adding a prescription drug benefit.
After the private meeting, Bush said the starting point for the overhaul would be a proposal introduced in 1999 by Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and John Breaux, D-La. It would allow senior citizens to choose a private health plan, with Medicare paying part of the premium.
Under the Breaux-Frist plan, patients would receive at least the same benefits they do now. Prescription drug coverage would be subsidized on a sliding scale, based on income, with lower-income citizens paying nothing.
"I believe the framework for a bipartisan consensus about how to make sure the Medicare system fulfills its promise is at hand, and we've got a lot of work to do," Bush said after the White House meeting.
A reworking of Medicare would be technically complicated and politically volatile. Senate aides said they were uncertain whether the work could be finished this year, but said lawmakers are willing to try.
On Jan. 29, Bush sent Congress a plan to help Medicare patients pay for prescription drugs. The plan, "Immediate Helping Hand," would give states $48 billion over four years to cover the full cost of drugs for the poorest senior citizens, and some of the cost for those slightly better off. After the four years, Bush would have the government pay at least one-fourth of all seniors' premium costs for prescription drug coverage.
Leading members of both parties had criticized Bush's short-term plan, saying that providing the drug benefit now would make it harder to undertake comprehensive reform later. Bush released the proposal with no fanfare and said immediately that he was willing to work with Congress on alternatives.
Among the most vocal critics was Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Finance Committee, which will guide the plan. He said participants left Monday's meeting "united in our goal to accomplish Medicare legislation this year."
Frist, a heart and lung transplant surgeon, said Bush made it clear in the meeting that "Medicare modernization is hugely important to this administration." He said Bush also "wants prescription drugs to be a part of modernization, and modernization not just to be a part of prescription drugs."
"The real danger that we face as elected representatives," Frist continued, "is to respond just to the call of prescription drugs, when the real challenge to us is modernization of Medicare -- whether it's solvency, prevention of bankruptcy, best use of taxpayers' dollars, quality of care, access to care, including preventative care."
Also Monday, the White House declined an invitation from a Sioux Falls, S.D., television station that offered to moderate a discussion between Bush and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., during a presidential visit to the state Friday.
"I think it was a challenge to the president to debate, and that is not the purpose of his trip," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "There will be no such debate. The president is looking forward to the travel."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.