Responding to pressure from his opponent on a key campaign issue, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush announced his plans to reform Medicare and help seniors buy prescription drugs.
Saying Medicare “must be modernized for our times,” the Texas governor unveiled his much-anticipated proposal Tuesday morning in Allentown, Pa., outlining an additional $158 billion in heath-care spending to be allocated in two phases over 10 years.
“There is something very wrong when the nation’s greatest health-care program can’t keep pace with the latest health care progress,” said Bush, while also calling Medicare “top-heavy with bureaucracy.”
He sought to link his plan to the bipartisan proposal sponsored last year by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Bush’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, has rejected that plan.
“This administration has been a roadblock to reform,” Bush said. “That is the record of the last eight years, old politics causing the same old stalemates, failed leadership and wasted opportunities.”
At a later campaign event in Scranton, Pa., Bush announced a $40 billion addition to his program to replace cuts made as a consequence of the 1997 balanced-budget agreement.
Gore responded to Bush’s proposal at the start of a campaign speech in Columbus, Ohio, saying the plan was flawed because it would not be affordable, given the $1.3 trillion tax cut Bush has proposed.
“The biggest problem is, there’s no money to pay for it, if you give away all of the surplus in the form of a giant tax cut to the wealthy at the expense of the middle class,” Gore said.
Additionally, Gore said Bush’s plan would still leave too many seniors without a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, and would force people to join health maintenance organizations.
Bush’s plan would subsidize costs of seniors enrolled in private health-care plans, while in Gore’s own proposal, all Medicare beneficiaries would be eligible for voluntary coverage.
Two-Phase Plan; One of a Few
The first phase of the Bush plan calls for $48 billion in block grants provided to states in order to provide drug coverage for seniors. The intended grants would take effect in 2001 at a rate of $12 billion a year for four years.
Under the proposal, Medicare would cover prescription drug costs on a sliding scale. People earning at or below 135 percent of the poverty level would have their full prescription drug costs covered, while those earning up to 175 percent of the poverty rate would have partial coverage. The plan would also provide full coverage for all prescription drug and catastrophic medical costs over $6,000.
The second phase of the plan calls for $110 billion over 10 years to provide for “Medicare Modernization.” It also would give Medicare recipients a choice of health plans and would cover 25 percent of the prescription drug premium for those making over 175 percent of the poverty rate.
Gore has proposed spending an estimated $253 billion over 10 years to pay for prescription drugs through Medicare, which provides benefits for elderly and disabled citizens.
In addition to the candidates’ plans, both major parties are trying to take the initiative on the issue in Washington, as Congress resumed business.
At a White House briefing, President Clinton also urged Congress to pass legislation on the issue, saying “Americans and people with disabilities should not have to wait another year for an affordable voluntary Medicare prescription drug benefit … the money is there, we ought to do this.”
Pressure From Gore
Gore has made prescription-drug benefits a centerpiece of his own campaign, and for more than two weeks has consistently pressed Bush to outline a concrete plan on the subject.
“The time for generalities without specifics I think is just about over,” Gore told reporters on Aug. 28. “It’s time to, where specifics are concerned, it’s kind of put up or shut up time.”
As both parties shoot for the support of seniors, who have a higher voter turnout that younger demographic groups, the Democratic National Committee is also set to release a new television ad Wednesday attacking Bush’s health-care record in Texas.
Citing an order by a federal judge last month for Bush to address problems in the state’s Medicaid system, the spot will run in nine states and has the tag line: “Bush’s record: it’s becoming an issue.”
Bush aides are contrasting their plan with Gore’s by emphasizing that it calls for an immediate change in Medicare policy, and by pointing out that Gore’s plan only offers drug coverage for those earning up to 150 percent of the poverty level.
A Republican National Committee television ad, which first aired Aug. 28, criticized Gore on health care, accusing him of “pushing a big-government plan that lets Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctors prescribe.”
In the wake of the ad — which included the tag line, “George Bush has a plan: Add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare” — Gore and the Democrats started challenging Bush to provide specific policy details.
Although President Clinton did not specifically talk about Bush’s plan, other members of the administration found fault with it.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters Tuesday morning that Bush’s plan was a rushed proposal that “doesn’t demonstrate a deep commitment for providing prescription drugs for America’s seniors.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala said the plan would not be comprehensive enough.
“A million people lost their HMO this year,” said Shalala. “There is no security in what Governor Bush has offered.”
As the debate over health-care continues, members of the Gore campaign figure to keep saying their plan would cover more people, and will keep questioning how Bush’s plan can be reconciled with his tax-cut proposal.
“If I was standing next to him, I would ask him where he gets the money to pay for it,” Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, said.
About 25 million people on Medicare have prescription drug coverage of some sort, but an additional 12 million people on Medicare have no coverage.
ABCNEWS’ John Berman, Terry Moran and Gayle Tzemach and The Associated Press contributed to this report.