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Bush keeps up Medicare pressure

Tenor of debate differs in House and Senate

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Bush talks to reporters at the start of Wednesday's meeting with senators.
Bush talks to reporters at the start of Wednesday's meeting with senators.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Keeping pressure on Congress to act on Medicare, President Bush on Wednesday invited a bipartisan group of senators to the White House, where he vowed to improve the government health insurance program for America's elderly.

"We're committed to reforming the Medicare system so America's seniors get the health care they need," Bush said at the start of the meeting.

The Senate and the House are working on bills to offer senior citizens a prescription drug benefit under Medicare, as well as more choice in the type of health coverage they want.

Republicans, in general, want to introduce more competition from the private sector into the health care system, while Democrats stress their desire to build on Medicare.

Debate is sharper in the House, where the Ways and Means Committee late Tuesday night approved a bill on a party-line vote that would introduce a prescription drug benefit.

But many Democrats criticized the measure as a prelude to dismantling Medicare, a charged rejected by Republicans.

In the Senate, some Democrats and Republicans have rallied around a bill approved by the Finance Committee that would bring the most sweeping changes to Medicare since the program's inception almost 40 years ago.

While several Democrats have raised objections, the bill is widely expected to win approval. Debate is scheduled to continue into next week.

Under the Senate bill, seniors would pay a $35 a month premium and face a $275 annual deductible. Insurance -- either administered by the government or a private provider -- would cover half of their prescription drug costs up to roughly $4,500.

Coverage would lapse between roughly $4,500 and $5,800, but would kick in at 90 percent when prescription bills exceeded about $5,800.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and various interest groups have cited the escalating cost of prescription drugs as a burden on many seniors, one that the current Medicare system fails to recognize.

The House measure is similar, but it would require wealthier seniors to pay more of their costs for medicine, and there would be a larger gap before catastrophic coverage kicked in. It also would introduce more private competition into the system.

House Democrats and Republicans differ on how much coverage the government should provide when it comes to prescription drugs for seniors.
House Democrats and Republicans differ on how much coverage the government should provide when it comes to prescription drugs for seniors.

"We have an unprecedented opportunity to really make a difference for our senior citizens," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said after the White House meeting.

Democrat Max Baucus of Montana, co-author of the Senate legislation, agreed.

"We all know the importance of getting prescription drug benefits for seniors," Baucus said. "It's extremely complicated working this out. It's not easy. It's uncharted territory, but we all want to make it work. For that reason, it is going to work."

Earlier, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, who was not at the White House meeting, described the Senate bill as a "start" and emphasized that Democrats don't want to see any changes that would undermine Medicare.

"We're not supportive of getting away from the basic Medicare construct," Daschle said.

Democrats have historically enjoyed an advantage among voters when it comes to Medicare, positioning themselves as defenders of the program.

But Bush has seized on the issue this year, effectively forcing the opposition party to work with him, similar to what President Clinton did with welfare reform in the 1990s.

CNN Congressional Producer Steve Turnham contributed to this report.

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