Bush Says He Will Veto Any Legislation Changing New Medicare Law
President Bush on Friday warned Congress not to "reopen" the new Medicare law by introducing legislation that would change it, warning that he will veto any bill that seeks to reduce the new prescription drug benefit, the Washington Post reports. Bush's comments, made at the swearing-in ceremony for new HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, come in response to criticism from some Democrats and Republicans about new cost projections for the drug benefit (Baker/Allen, Washington Post, 2/12).
CMS on Tuesday said that the new Medicare prescription drug benefit would cost more than $720 billion over its first 10 years, with expenses reaching $100 billion annually by 2015. During negotiations over the Medicare legislation, estimates placed the law's 10-year cost at about $400 billion. Shortly after Bush signed the measure into law in December 2003, the administration projected the cost to be $534 billion. Administration officials said that new and previous estimates were not comparable because the older projections covered the years 2004 to 2013, while the new estimate covers the period between 2006 -- when the new prescription drug benefit takes effect - and 2015 (California Healthline, 2/10).
According to the New York Times, the new estimates "touched off a furor in Congress." Liberal and centrist Democrats are saying they want to change the law to allow the government to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical companies and to permit the reimportation of prescription drugs from abroad, while fiscally conservative Republicans said they are seeking benefit reductions and cost controls (Pear, New York Times, 2/12).
On Friday, Bush, who did not issue a single veto in his first term as president, said, "I signed Medicare reform proudly, and any attempt to limit the choices of our seniors and to take away their prescription drug coverage under Medicare will meet my veto" (CongressDaily, 2/11). Bush said, "This law is a landmark achievement in American health care, and millions of older Americans are already benefiting from its reforms" (Washington Post, 2/12).
He added, "Under the old system, Medicare would pay $28,000 for ulcer surgery, but not the $500 a year needed for the prescription drugs that eliminated the cause of most ulcers. That system didn't make sense for our seniors. It made no sense for American taxpayers" (Baltimore Sun, 2/12). Bush also said, "Seniors will be able to choose a health plan that meets their needs. And health plans will compete for their business, which will lower costs throughout the program" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2/12).
According to the Washington Times, Bush suggested that Leavitt would be able to deter legislative attempts to change the new Medicare law. He said that Leavitt "has a proven ability to move beyond the partisan debate, to work with leaders at all levels of government and to improve the lives of the people he serves" (Sammon, Washington Times, 2/12).
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said that Bush's remarks were not aimed at a specific proposal but rather are a "general statement" -- albeit a "very strong statement" -- that Congress should not change the new Medicare law (New York Times, 2/12).
McClellan added, "You heard from members of the Democratic Party earlier this week who really were trying to move forward on an attempt to undermine the reforms that we put in place. We're not going to let that happen" (Washington Post, 2/12). McClellan said that negotiating with drug companies would not produce "significant savings." He added that Bush continues to be concerned about the safety of reimported prescription drugs (Washington Times, 2/12).
According to the Post, several Republican leaders "rallied behind the president while repeating their concerns about the spiraling costs" of the new Medicare drug benefit (Washington Post, 2/12). Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said on "Fox News Sunday" that there is no need to change "a very strong bill" before the prescription drug benefit takes effect (McDonough, AP/Manchester Union-Leader, 2/14). He added, "I think we ought to let the program be implemented. It hasn't started. It's going to start in 2006. And then after a year, come back and see if we should make modifications" (Reuters/Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/14).
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that Republican leaders are giving "no consideration" to proposals that would reduce the prescription drug benefit, adding that the new cost estimates do not take into account savings that likely will occur.
House Rules Committee Chair David Dreier (R-Calif.) said that he is "not happy with the projection of a spending level beyond what [was] anticipated," but he added, "I support the president on this. We should not reverse what we worked so hard to put in place" (Washington Post, 2/12).
Some members of Congress on Friday said that they "intended to re-examine the law and would try to revise it, despite Mr. Bush's veto threat," the New York Times reports (New York Times, 2/12). Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, "Make no mistake, the president's blanket veto threat is designed to protect only special interests -- the big drug companies and HMOs his flawed bill gave billions to in the new law." He added, "This is an attempt by the president to stop the bipartisan groundswell for drug reimportation and price negotiation, and just the latest example of the Republican Party putting special interests ahead of the American people" (Washington Post, 2/12).
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said, "The prescription drug benefit is heading into a danger zone. ... The combination of rising cost estimates and confusion over the drug discount card is really ominous. In a belt-tightening environment, some members of Congress will want to throw this out and start all over again" (New York Times, 2/12). He added, "By refusing any improvements, the White House is writing a prescription for a program that cannot survive. I hope the president will reconsider" (AP/Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2/12).
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said Bush's comments suggest that "he's nervous," adding, "The president's base, the conservative base of the Republican Party, is upset with a bill that has thrown fiscal restraint out the window" (New York Times, 2/12).
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said, "We need to act now to lower the increasing cost of this new program. We should pass legislation allowing the government to negotiate the prices of prescription drugs offered through the new Medicare benefit."
Senate Budget Committee Chair Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said, "I still am very suspect of this drug program and where it's going and the amount of money it's going to cost" (Douglas, Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/12). Gregg said the new drug benefit "was estimated to be a $400 billion program over 10 years. That's what it should be" (AP/Manchester Union-Leader, 2/14). He added, "I do think we are going to have to go back and readdress" the new Medicare law (Washington Times, 2/12).
Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he will consider drafting new legislation limiting the Medicare drug benefit to low-income beneficiaries (Baltimore Sun, 2/12). Flake said, "I cannot imagine the president would veto a bill that would more closely resemble what he originally wanted, a means-tested benefit to help low-income seniors who cannot afford their medicines" (New York Times, 2/12).
Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) said of the new cost projections, "I think every member [of Congress] looked at this price tag and said, 'Oh my God, what have we done?'" He added that Bush's veto threat will not stop lawmakers from working to reduce costs, saying, "In many respects, that kind of language is like waving a red flag in front of a bull. On issues like prescription drugs and the budget, the bulls are running" (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 2/12).
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said she would continue to push for legislation requiring the federal government to negotiate lower prices with pharmaceutical companies, as well as a separate bill to legalize reimportation (New York Times, 2/12).
Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, said Bush "wants to nip in the bud the growing discontent that could lead to the uncontrollable situation where Democrats as well as Republicans reopen the Medicare drug benefit." He added, "I think the administration is very worried about a situation they cannot control" (CQ HealthBeat, 2/11).
John Rother, director of health policy for AARP, said, "I think the president has a strong preference to see first how the (prescription drug) program plays out as designed, and then to make a judgment" over whether cost controls should be enacted. He added that a fight in Congress over Medicare would "torpedo any chances to [reform] Social Security."
Marilyn Moon, a health economist at the American Institutes for Research, said of the announcement of the new cost estimate last week, "The way in which the information was presented was confusing to people. It looked like something had changed dramatically, and they had a credibility problem left over from the debate on the original legislation" (Los Angeles Times, 2/12).
CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday discussed Medicare and included comments from Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Karen Tumulty of Time magazine (Schieffer, "Face the Nation," CBS, 2/13). The complete transcript is available online.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.