President Bush promoted his discount prescription drug proposal Saturday as a boon for older Americans. Democrats dismissed it as an ill-conceived plan that builds false hopes of relief from skyrocketing prices.
In his weekly radio address, Bush said Congress should put partisan divisions aside and act quickly to bring Medicare up to date, while he acts by January to issue elderly Americans pharmacy cards to buy prescription medicines at a discount.
"All of us, young and old, have a stake in the outcome of this discussion," Bush said. "Medicare has represented a basic binding commitment to our seniors. That commitment will always stand."
Responding for Democrats, Sen. Tim Johnson challenged Bush's claim that the discount card program would be easy and convenient. The South Dakota Democrat he said the plan does not go far enough in addressing the rising prescription prices.
"Modest discounts may be a start, but this year, Senate Democrats hope to accomplish a meaningful, universal, voluntary system that seniors can count on to provide access to drug coverage they simply don't have today," Johnson said.
"What we don't need is a half-baked plan that no one can agree on, and that builds false hopes that help no one," Johnson said. "The rising costs of prescription drugs urgently needs to be addressed, and we will need your help to develop the best possible plan that benefits everyone."
Bush said his discount plan is only a first step toward broader reform that would expand Medicare coverage, improve services, bolster Medicare financing and give seniors more control over the type of care they receive.
Bush said he envisions offering a range of competing Medicare plans, private as well as public.
"Every (private) plan offered to seniors should have at least the same benefits as the government plan," he said. "And all plans must offer prescription drug coverage."
Medicare traditionally does not pay for prescription drugs. Under the president's plan _ which would not need congressional approval _ Medicare would endorse several privately administered prescription drug discount cards, like those now offered by pharmaceutical and other companies.
The cards would be free or cost $25 at most. They would save Medicare recipients 25 percent in typical pharmacy purchases, or as much as 50 percent for mail-order drugs.
The government will start taking applications Monday from private companies that want to provide the cards.