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Sen. Clinton re-enters health care fray

Former first lady blasts Medicare plan; alleges 'deliberate neglect'

From Phil Hirschkorn
CNN

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Hillary Rodham Clinton

ROCHESTER, New York (CNN) -- Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton put her pet issue, health care, at the center of her Senate re-election effort Monday, accusing the Bush administration of "deliberate neglect" of the issue.

"I'm ready to get back into the fray, knowing how difficult and controversial it is," Clinton told an audience of about 100 health care and business professionals at the University of Rochester Medical Center. "The status quo is not sustainable."

In a campaign swing that touched down in the three most populous cities in upstate New York, the junior senator described the introduction of the Bush administration's prescription drug plan under the Medicare program as a "confusing and complex transition." (Watch Hillary, national GOP do battle -- 1:43 )

Earlier, while visiting a pharmacy, Clinton said many elderly residents were paying far more for drugs than they used to and have found themselves hamstrung by paperwork.

"A lot of pharmacists are giving the drugs to their customers because they know how much their customers need it," she said. "One of the bills I've introduced is to make sure the pharmacists get reimbursed."

Rochester has a population of about 200,000, and about 2 in 5 jobs in the area are in the health care industry.

Clinton also visited pharmacies in Buffalo and Syracuse to call for improvements to the Medicare drug plan, which took effect January 1.

Since then, at least 26 states have had to step in to make sure some of the poorest seniors receive needed prescriptions, an association of state health care officials said last week. (Full story)

"We have people that are coming up that should have $1 and $3 co-pays that have $40 co-pays on their medications," said Dawne Rizio, a pharmacy technician at Rochester's Saratoga Pharmacy. "They're not getting their meds, or we're spending hours on the phone fighting with insurance companies."

In her speech, Clinton said the administration was not doing enough to help the 45 million Americans who have no health insurance or to lower health care costs, which now consume 15 percent of the nation's gross national product.

"The response in Washington to our health care crisis has been to cut Medicaid, erode patent protections and to promote strategies that increase costs and reduce access to care," she said.

Clinton said Bush's State of the Union speech January 31 was likely to include new proposals, which she characterized "in three words: on your own."

She said the failed effort to provide universal insurance coverage that she led as first lady early in her husband's first term as president may have been "too much, too fast."

But she added, "Today, we're making things worse with deliberate neglect and flawed policies that are diminishing the coverage that Americans have. That is shifting costs to others and leaving consumers, businesses and local governments with the bill."

Clinton is seeking a second Senate term in November without a well-funded opponent, and she has not ruled out a run for the presidency in 2008.

"I'm just running for re-election now -- that's my most important job is to get re-elected," she told a supporter at the pharmacy. "But I need your help for that, too. I don't want to take anything for granted."

Clinton's comments on health care were the latest in a series of sharp criticisms of the White House. Last week, she took aim at the administration's handling of the nuclear standoff in Iran, just two days after saying it would go down as "one of the worst" presidencies in U.S. history.

Bush health care proposals

In his national radio address Saturday, Bush pushed two proposals he said would limit health care costs.

"For the sake of America's small businesses, workers, and families, we must also make health care more affordable and accessible," he said.

Bush said he will ask Congress to make "health savings accounts" -- which would allow people to save for health care in tax-free accounts -- more available, affordable and portable.

"Congress also needs to pass association health plans, which allow small businesses across the country to join together and pool risk so they can buy insurance at the same discounts big companies get," he said.

Last month, Bush visited a retirement home in suburban Washington to push the Medicare drug plan. He acknowledged that seniors could find signing up for it to be "a daunting task."

"What we want to assure seniors around the country is that there is help," Bush said. "You can call 1-800-Medicare or you can get on the Internet with medicare.gov, ask your son or daughter, ask people in your church, ask people in AARP, ask people in your community center, to help look at what's available for you.

"It's a good deal for our seniors." (Full story)

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