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RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. - President Bush flew to Arizona and California on Monday to urge wary seniors to take advantage of the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit that takes effect next year.
Speaking first at a sun-baked recreational-vehicle resort in El Mirage, Ariz.,and later at a senior center in this inland Southern California city, Bush tried to allay fears among seniors about signing up for the benefit.
He called the benefit program "a fantastic opportunity," and said seniors should at least consider their options before deciding whether to join or keep insurance they already have.
"Seniors with no drug coverage and average drug expenses will see their drug costs cut in half," he said. "You need to look at what's available."
A poll this month by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation shows that despite a publicity and education effort launched last spring by the Department of Health and Human Services, roughly a third of seniors have a favorable impression of the plan, another third have an unfavorable impression, and the rest are either neutral or still don't know enough about it. Kaiser's polls show seniors' opinion of the plan improving, but less than a quarter of respondents say they plan to sign up.
The president stressed that seniors don't have to join the new benefit program if they don't want to. But he quickly added, "If you are unhappy with the current Medicare plan, here's an opportunity to sign up for a new plan."
The government says the program will offer seniors in every state but Alaska at least one prescription drug benefit for a monthly premium under $20. Higher cost plans also will be available with no deductibles. Available plans will vary from state to state; some states will have as few as 11 programs while others will have as many as 23, all with varying coverages, costs and deductibles.
"We're going to help people get a good fit," said Medicare chief Mark McClellan, who was traveling with Bush.
Medicare recipients must apply for the drug program in addition to their regular health coverage. Enrollment starts Nov. 15 and benefits begin Jan. 1. About 43 million seniors are eligible.
McClellan said enrollees will pay an average monthly premium of about $32 - lower than the roughly $37 originally expected. But the cost will vary among regions. Millions of elderly poor can qualify to receive benefits for nothing.
Medicare is offering information to help people choose among these plans at its website, www.Medicare.gov, or by phone at 1-800-MEDICARE. Organizations such as AARP and the Salvation Army are offering personal assistance.
Congress approved the new benefit in 2003 as part of a Medicare overhaul law pushed by Bush to help seniors cope with soaring drug costs. But critics, mainly Democrats, argue that the benefit program is too complex and doesn't cover enough drugs that seniors need.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called the program "fatally flawed" in a statement released Monday. "The truth is that his plan includes billions in subsidies for HMOs and big drug companies at the expense of the Medicare program," Kennedy said.
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