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Medicare drug plan hailed

June 29, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

President Clinton on Tuesday unveiled his plan to expand Medicare benefits for millions of Americans by providing federal aid to help senior citizens buy medicine.

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The proposal calls for directing 15 percent of the budget surplus over the next 15 years to the medical insurance program for senior citizens.

The extra funds will extend the program's solvency well into the next century and help pay for new benefits, according to administration officials.

Among the most ambitious proposals in Clinton's plan calls for providing money for prescription drugs to senior citizens whose insurance does not pay for medication.

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Beginning in 2002, Medicare recipients would have the option of paying $24 a month for the drug benefit. The government would pay for half of a recipient's prescription drug costs up to $2,000 a year, or $1,000.

By 2008, the premiums would rise to $44 a month while the cap would increase to $5,000, for the maximum payment of $2,500, according to the White House.

Tri-State area seniors said they would welcome any help they can get with an expense that is overwhelming many of them.

"That would be wonderful. I wouldn't mind paying $45 per month as opposed to the $250 a month I pay in medication," said Funkstown resident Geraldine Walbecker.

Walbecker, 73, said she takes four kinds of medication for high blood pressure, cholesterol, a thyroid condition and nerves. The monthly bill is a hefty price tag for a couple that lives on Social Security, she said.

"We're having a struggle with it," she said. "It's really awful that seniors have to live like this."

Walbecker said she pays $78 per month for a "Medigap" policy, private insurance that supplements Medicare. But like most supplemental plans, it only pays a small fraction of the drug costs.

Walbecker, said she worries that she will one day be forced to leave prescriptions unfilled like other seniors.

"So far, I haven't done without," she said. "But in the future I may have to. We're living partially on savings - but savings don't last forever."

Tough choice

The White House estimates that 31 million Americans could benefit from the prescription drug program.

Local aging advocates said the need is great. The Washington County Commission on Aging estimates 10,492 of the county's 18,870 seniors have no prescription drug coverage.

"We feel relief is necessary for lots of people," said Fred Otto, the commission on aging's executive director. "People are making choices between food and prescription drugs, or they're taking drugs irregularly, which may be worse than not taking them at all."

Boonsboro resident James Draper said he and his wife have not had to take drastic steps. But he said it has been difficult.

"We're not millionaires. We're basically living off Social Security," he said.

Draper, 72, said his wife takes 14 pills a day for various ailments and he takes three different kinds of medications.

A retired maintenance supervisor for Fahrney-Keedy Home, Draper said he envies people who kept prescription drug coverage from large companies after they retired.

"For us people that worked for a lesser job, we can't keep up," he said.

Pennsylvania and Maryland both have programs that help poor seniors pay for medication. Both are available only to retirees with extremely low incomes.

Paul Sweeney, president of Quality First Insurance in Hagerstown, has been working with the Commission on Aging to develop a local drug assistance program in Washington County.

The organization has applied for $100,000 from the Washington County Gaming Commission to start a program, Sweeney said.

West Virginia has no prescription drug program, according to Berkeley County Senior Services Director Eileen Dooley.

"It's something we see all the time. We get more requests for assistance with prescription drugs than almost any other kind of assistance," she said.

The details

The drug benefit, which would begin in 2002, would cost about $118 billion over 10 years, according to the White House.

About 60 percent of the funds would come from Medicare savings created by improving efficiency and competition and reducing fraud, according to the Clinton administration. The rest of the program would be financed by using part of the budget surplus.

The poorest Medicare recipients would pay no premium or a reduced monthly rate.

The Clinton plan got a mixed reception in Congress, which must approve any Medicare changes.

"Honor thy mother and father is not only an excellent commandment, but good public policy," Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said in a statement.

Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., also praised the Clinton plan in a statement.

But U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., faulted Clinton for not following the recommendations of a bipartisan Medicare commission earlier this year.

Bartlett said in a statement that the president "prefers to grandstand and spend the so-called surplus one more time."

Bartlett said it would be better to focus the government's efforts on seniors who are most in need.

"As President Clinton rushes to expand access to affordable prescription drugs, he runs the risk of having existing private pension plans drop prescription drug coverage," he said.

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