WASHINGTON -- President Bush pledged Thursday to "honor and renew the promise of Medicare" with a stopgap prescription drug discount plan that he said will give way to a broader overhaul of the 36-year-old government health care program.
Surrounded by elderly Americans at a sunny Rose Garden ceremony, the president said, "We need to bring Medicare into the 21st century, to expand its coverage, improve its services, strengthen its financing and give seniors more control over the heath care they receive"
He offered a general outline of his Medicare reform plans, restating his campaign promises on the topic, but promised quicker relief for high prescription drugs costs.
Under Bush's Prescription Drug Discount Program, Medicare would endorse and promote several privately administered prescription drug discount cards, like those currently offered by pharmaceutical and other companies. The cards would be free or cost at most $25.
According to White House estimates, the card could save Medicare recipients 25 percent in typical medicine purchases, or as much as 50 percent for mail-order drugs. Bush said the cards would cost a dollar or two.
"It's simple and it's convenient," Bush said.
To educate seniors about their options in Medicare and the prescription card, Bush pledged a $35 million public-awareness campaign this fall.
He said the Medicare program has not kept pace with advances in medicine and the rising costs of health care.
"Medicare, too, must advance and it, too, must change," he said. "This generation of leaders must honor and renew the promise of Medicare by strengthening Medicare for the future."
Among Medicare-reform principles, Bush said seniors should have the option of a subsidized prescription drug benefit as part of the benefit. Unlike most employer-sponsored health plans, Medicare does not pay for prescription drugs.
His principles also asserted that:
--Medicare should provide better coverage for preventive care and serious illnesses.
--Today's beneficiaries and those approaching retirement should have the option of keeping the traditional plan without the changes under consideration.
--Medicare should provide more health insurance options, like those available to federal employees.
--The program's long-term financial security should be strengthened, as should its management.
--Medicare's regulations and administrative procedures should be updated and streamlined, while fraud and abuse should be reduced.
With his prescription drug discount plan opposed by many pharmacies, which fear they will bear the brunt of the price, Bush said participating drugs stores will earn to customers by accepting the card.
Merck-Medco, an independently subsidiary of the drug maker Merck & Co. has a discount card that can save consumers up to 30 percent, and an average of 11 percent off brand-name medicines, said company spokeswoman Anita Kawatra.
The card sponsors would be required to help pay for a consortium to address enrollment issues, and to publicize comparative information on discounted drug prices.
Under Bush's proposal, Medicare would not subsidize the cost of medicines, nor negotiate prices with drugs makers.
The administration said it could implement the proposal without congressional approval, and predicted it could be up and running later this year.
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