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Bush, Thompson Press Conference

Aired October 29, 2003 - 11:04   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We're also watching news out of Washington, D.C. Any moment now we're going to hear from President Bush. He's going to be talking about Medicare reform any moment now. We're waiting for him to come through that door. Also laying out some of his domestic agenda.
CNN's White House correspondent Dana Bash standing by and waiting for these events as well. Good morning, Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, carol. And this speech that we expect to hear from the president very shortly will be a classic use of the bully pulpit. The president is going to talk about the need to get a prescription drug benefit passed for Medicare.

This is going on as negotiators, House and Senate negotiators, are meeting an Capitol Hill, an intense negotiation. The president will urge them to get their work done. Here's the president with the Secretary of HHS, Tommy Thompson.

TOMMY THOMPSON, SECRETARY OF HHS: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I'm very honored today to introduce a leader who works to make sure that all Americans remain strong, healthy and independent.

I love working for him because his ideas make so much sense. He believes that people should exercise and eat right, and he does it himself. He believes that doctors should focus on patients, not paperwork. He believes that trial lawyers should not drive good doctors out of medicine. And he believes that Medicare should cover the advances of modern medicine for our seniors.

Republicans and Democrats have known for years that seniors deserve a modern Medicare, but it took the leadership of one man to bring them together to deliver. And we're almost there.

I am proud to work for him, proud to call him my friend. Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States of America.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all. Please be seated. Thank you all.

Thank you all for coming. Good morning. Welcome to the White House. Glad you're here.

We are meeting in an historic time.

BUSH: And the reason why is, after years of debate and deadlock, the Congress is on the verge of Medicare reform, and that's important.

Prescription drug coverage for our seniors is within reach. Expanded coverage for preventive medicine and therapy is within our reach. More health care choices for seniors are within our reach. Though a few difficult issues remain, the Congress has made tremendous progress and now is the time to finish the work.


The Congress needs to finalize legislation that brings our seniors the best of modern medicine. I want to sign the legislation into law before the year is out.


And the point person for this administration in working with the Congress to move the legislation along is Tommy Thompson, our secretary, who has done a fabulous job.


If he looks tired, it's because he's showing up early and going to bed late working for the seniors of America.

I want to thank Tom Scully, who is the administrator. Scully is the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

I appreciate you coming.


Got other members of my administration who are concerned about the health of all Americans, including our seniors: Rich Carmona, the surgeon general.

BUSH: Thank you, General.


The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Julie Gerberding.

Thank you, Julie, for being here. It's good to see you.


The director of the National Institutes of Health, Elias Zerhouni. Dr. Zerhouni is with us.


We've got a lot of other important people here; too many to name. But I have just come from a roundtable discussion with some seniors and some people involved in the process, a corporate executive who is from Caterpillar who assures me that corporations have no intention -- if there's a Medicare reform bill signed by me, corporations have no intention to what they call dump retirees into a system they don't want to be dumped into.

And I appreciate that commitment by Rich Lavin (ph).

Thank you for bringing that up.

I want to thank Jim Parkel from Fairfield, Connecticut, who is the president of the AARP, for being here.

Appreciate my friend Jim Budamartin (ph) for being here today. He's very much concerned about the health of our citizens.

And thank you all for coming. This is an important moment, as I said. You see, the stories we heard remind Tommy and me that seniors depend upon Medicare and that the Medicare program is a basic trust that must be upheld throughout the generations.

BUSH: What we're talking about is trust. Can people trust their government to bring a modern system of health to our seniors?

We've made a commitment at the federal level to provide good health care for seniors, and we must uphold that commitment. That's what we're here to discuss today, how best to do that.

Each of the seniors that we talked to understands that the system needs improvement, that Medicare needs to be modernized. I'm determined to meet this responsibility.

And let me share some of the stories we heard right quick.

Neil Lagroe (ph) is with us.

Neil (ph), thank you.

He takes 10 medications. About $525 a month he spends. He pays for it all. Because of these costs, he continues to work. Although I must say he didn't complain about it.


He likes to work.

We need our seniors working, by the way, in terms of making contributions to our society. I'm not talking about being on the factory floor for eight hours, but I am talking about passing on values from one generation to the next or helping in different community activities as you see fit. It's really an important contribution to our country.

Neil (ph) does that.

If he gets some help with his prescription drug costs, it's going to make his retirement a little easier. (LAUGHTER)

Isn't that right?

Seniors should be able to plan their retirement better.

BUSH: The best way to do so is to make sure that they can afford the medicines necessary to keep them healthy. That's what we're talking about in this bill.

Joan Phogg (ph) is with us from Richmond. She and her husband Walter are on Medicare, and they pay a goodly portion for drugs, right out of their own pocket. "When we think we're getting down on money, we go ahead and cut the medication in half." That's what she said. "That's not the way it should be, but we deal with it. We have to."

Joan's right, that's not the way it should be. That's why we want to modernize the system. That's why we want to work better for all seniors.

Most American seniors and people with disabilities are grateful for the current Medicare system, yet they understand the system has problems. Our job is to address those problems. We should carefully correct the problems. That's what we were elected to do.

Medicare was created at a time when medicine consisted mostly of house calls and surgery and long hospital stays. Now modern medicine includes preventative care, outpatient procedures and at-home care. Life is changing. Medicare is not.

Many invasive surgeries are now unnecessary because of miraculous new prescription drugs. Most Americans have coverage for this new medicine. Three-quarters of seniors have some kind of drug coverage. Seniors relying exclusively on Medicare do not have coverage for most prescription drugs and many forms of preventative care.

BUSH: This is not good. It's not cost-effective medicine.

Medicare today will pay for extended hospital stays for ulcer surgery at a cost of about $28,000 per patient. And that's important coverage. Yet Medicare will not pay for the drugs that eliminate the cause of ulcers, drugs that cost about $500 a year. So when you hear me talk about cost savings, there's an example of cost savings.

Medicare will pay many of the costs to treat a stroke, including bills from hospital and rehab center, doctors, home health aides and out-patient care. Those costs can run more than $100,000. And this is essential coverage. Yet Medicare does not cover the blood-thinning drugs that could prevent strokes, drugs that cost less than $1,000 a year.

The Medicare system has many strengths yet it is often slow to respond to dramatic changes in medicine.

Took more than a decade and an act of Congress to get Medicare to cover preventative breast cancer screenings. Took 10 years and then an act of Congress to change the system. That's not a good system.

Our seniors should not have to wait for an act of Congress for improvements in their health care.


BUSH: The best way to provide our seniors with modern medicine, including prescription drug coverage and better preventative care, is to give them better choices under Medicare. If seniors have choices, health plans will compete for their business by offering better coverage at more affordable prices.

The choices we support include the choice of making no change at all. I understand some seniors don't want a change. And that's perfectly sensible. If you're a senior who wants to stay in the current Medicare system, you'll have that option. And you'll gain a prescription drug benefit. That's what the reform does.

If you're a senior who wants enhanced benefits, such as coverage for extended hospital stays or protection again high out-of-pocket expenses, you'll have that choice.

If you like managed care plans, that option will be there.

If you're a low-income senior, you will receive extra help each month and more generous coverage, so you can afford a Medicare option that includes prescription drug benefits.

We're applying a basic principle: Seniors should be able to choose the kind of coverage that works best for them, instead of having that choice made by the government.


BUSH: Every member of Congress gets to choose a health coverage plan that makes the most sense for them. So does every federal employee. If this kind of coverage is good enough for the United States Congress, it's good enough for America's seniors.


For seniors without any drug coverage now these reforms will make a big difference in their lives. In return for a monthly premium of about $35, or a dollar a day, those seniors now without coverage would see their drug bills cut roughly in half.

A senior who has no drug coverage now and monthly drug costs of $200 a month would save more than $1,700 on drug costs each year. A senior with monthly drug costs of $800 would save nearly $5,900 on drug costs each year. Those are important savings -- help change people's lives in a positive way.

I'm optimistic the House and the Senate negotiators will produce a bill that brings real savings to millions of seniors and real reform to Medicare. Once the legislation is passed it will take some time to put into place. During this period, we'll provide all seniors with a Medicare- approved drug discount card that saves between 10 to 25 percent off the cost of their medicines, so they'll have a start to see savings immediately.

BUSH: Low-income beneficiaries will receive a $600 subsidy along with their discount card to help them purchase their prescription medicines.

The legislation Congress passes must make sure that the prescription drug coverage provided to many retirees by their employers is not undermined. That's what Rick and I just discussed. Medicare legislation should encourage employers to continue benefits, while also extending drug coverage to the millions of Medicare beneficiaries who now lack it.

These steps will strengthen Medicare not only for today's seniors, but for tomorrow's retirees. Many workers are counting on Medicare to provide good health care coverage in their retirement. That's what people are counting on. These reforms will give our workers confidence that Medicare will serve them with the very best of modern medicine.

The budget I submitted earlier this year commits an additional $400 billion over 10 years to implement this vision of a stronger Medicare system.

We're keeping our commitments to the seniors of today. We must pursue these reforms so that a Medicare system can serve future generations of Americans.

LIN: President Bush outlining his Medicare plan. Preaching to the choir there from the White House, in terms of what he wants to offer. He is saying that his plan offers more choice for seniors to choose their plans, make a more competitive system, lower the overall cost of health care and also offering a prescription drug benefit.

CNN's Congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl standing by. Jonathan, again, he was preaching to the choir. What do the Democrats have to say about the plan?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the president made it very clear that he thinks that now is the time, that after years of deadlock on this issue, that Congress can finally get this done. This is something Democrats and Republicans have been promising for year, for about five or six years. Virtually everybody who has run for Congress has promised to get prescription drug coverage for seniors.

So democrats, most of them are very skeptical about what is happening right now. There are major sticking points going on on final negotiations with this. One of those, perhaps the biggest sticking point, is the question of how much competition should there be for Medicare? The Republicans up here would like to see private insurance companies have a chance to compete with Medicare on regular coverage, not just prescription drug coverage, but for doctors coverage.

Now, Democrats oppose this by and large because they think it would ruin Medicare, privatize Medicare. Also there's the question of means testing. Should wealthy seniors pay more?

And then finally there's question of drug reimportation. Drugs are available cheaper from countries like Canada and from the European Union where there are price controls. Many Democrats and some Republicans up here would like to see it legal to buy drugs from other countries to import them into the United States.

Now Tom Daschle this morning, just a short while before the president started that event, was very critical of what he sees coming out of this committee that is working on the final compromise on prescription drugs.


SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: It means an increase in their premiums. It may mean a loss of benefits for retirees. It may mean a dramatic variation in premiums for Medicare itself from one state to the other. There are many, many reasons why there are huge political downsides here.

So I think they make major miscalculation in thinking that somehow this is a political bonanza. If anything, I think it's going to be a hard pill to swallow.


KARL: I'm joined now by the top Democrat involved in these negotiations over the final deal, in fact one of only two Democrats involved in these negotiations, Senator Max Baucus, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee in the Senate.

So do you agree with Senator Daschle that what's coming out of the committee you are on looks like it will be bad politically?

SEN. MAX BAUCUS (D-MT), FINANCE CMTE.: We want to get prescription drug benefit force seniors. That's the goal we have here. It's only going happen, I think, if we truly do work together. And I know that's a bit of a platitude, but if we work together, we're going to get a bill passed.

It's important to remember Social Security that passed 1935, passed the Congress with huge majorities. Medicare which passed the Congress in 1965 passed the Congress with a huge majority. That is working together.

The House passed its prescription drug version by one vote, not working together. The Senate passed its version by large majority because we were working together. So these couple issues that are hanging up an agreement can only be worked out if the president only sits down and really, truly compromises and doesn't try to push an ideological agenda on top of the drug benefit. KARL: Your leader, Senator Daschle, the top Democrat here in the Senate, makes it very clear that he thinks that what's coming out of the committee you are on is nowhere near acceptable. Just way off the deep end. Is he correct?

BAUCUS: We don't know yet. We haven't reached any agreement on the big issues.

But, he is -- I support private competition, but not private competition that's going undermine Medicare and not private competition that's going to drive up Medicare premiums. And I don't support this new tax provisions which help the younger people but don't help senior citizens.

This is a Medicare bill. We should be working on legislation that gives prescription drug benefits to seniors. And all this extraneous stuff, that should not be on the bill, we can work on that another day.

BAUCUS: OK, Democrat Tom Daschle is pessimistic. The president just said he is optimistic that you and the Republicans you are working for will come with something that can pass. Where do you put it? What are the odds of us seeing a prescription drug bill pass this year?

BAUCUS: Well I'm realistic. I think that we can do it. We should try our utmost to get it done. But remembering that a bad deal is worse than no deal. And we don't know yet whether we've got a good deal.

KARL: Give me some odds, 50/50, 60/40?

BAUCUS: I'll give you roughly 50/50.

KARL: 50/50 that it passes? Senator Baucus, thank you very much for joining us.

And, Carol, some major work ahead. That committee needs to come to agreement, but then they have to find something that'll pass both the House and the Senate. So some serious obstacles before getting this done -- Carol.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Jonathan Karl our Congressional correspondent.


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