Bush Adjusts Medicare Drug Costs Downward

President Bush announces that many of the new Medicare prescription drug plans set to take effect in 2006 will be less expensive than anticipated. But he also announced that every beneficiary will have a dozen or more different plans to choose from — an idea that has advocates worried about confusion.

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President Bush spent his day monitoring the effects of Hurricane Katrina and promoting a new Medicare prescription drug benefit that starts next year. Mr. Bush was on the road in Arizona and California. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

In the first of two stops on a Western-state swing, the president addressed seniors at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club in El Mirage, Arizona. He's doing what he calls a preselling tour to try to explain to seniors their new Medicare choices.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This is a good deal for our seniors. We have changed Medicare. We have done our duty in Washington, DC. We've upgraded an important program and made it better.

ROVNER: The president, in particular, defended the Republican approach to a Medicare drug benefit: Having private companies offer competing plans instead of having Medicare provide coverage directly via the government. And he said that judging from the number of firms that have applied to offer Medicare drug plans, that competition is working.

Pres. BUSH: Do you realize that there's at least one prescription drug plan with premiums below $20 a month in every state now? That's a pretty good deal. And here in Arizona, you got two plans that cost $20 a month or less and six plans at 20 to $25 a month. In other words, you got people bidding for your services. That's the whole purpose of the bill.

ROVNER: And there will be plenty of choices. Medicare officials announced today that every beneficiary will have between 11 and 23 plans to choose from, but consumer advocates and analysts say that's both good and bad news for beneficiaries. On one hand, says Tricia Neuman of the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation, more choices make it more likely seniors can find the plan that best suits their needs. But at the same time...

Ms. TRICIA NEUMAN (Kaiser Family Foundation): There is a concern that with too many choices, there will be a sort of deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon when people are confronted with so many choices that they decide, `Oh, I just can't quite make this decision, and I'm not going to sign up.' And that would probably be the worst possible outcome when there are strong reasons for people to sign up this year, when they're first eligible for coverage in 2006.

ROVNER: That's because eligible beneficiaries who enroll after next May will have to pay a premium penalty. Neuman also agreed that the president's other news--that nearly every beneficiary will have access to a plan that costs less than $20 a month--is a good thing. But she cautions that premiums are only the first of many variables seniors will have to consider in choosing a drug plan.

Ms. NEUMAN: And that's where it gets a little bit more dicey because any given senior would need to make a list of all of their drugs, figure out which are the most expensive and then possibly go online or contact each of these 11 to 23 plans to find out whether the drugs they take are covered and what they'll have to pay for them.

ROVNER: Those details won't be available until late next month. Meanwhile, President Bush still has a lot of selling to do. In a survey released last week, more than 70 percent of seniors said they won't sign up or they don't yet have enough information to make a decision. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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