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McCain Proposes Medicare Drug Benefit Changes

By Michael D. Shear and Jonathan Weisman
Sen. John McCain will propose that affluent seniors pay more for government provided drug benefits as a way to control health-care spending, aides said during a preview of a major economic speech the senator will deliver in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

The proposal is similar to a controversial one put forth by President Bush last fall, in which married retirees who make more than $160,000 a year would pay increasingly higher costs for the newly established Medicare prescription drug plans.

"When we added the prescription drug benefit ... we included a lot of people that can well afford to pay for their own prescription drugs," said Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO and a top McCain adviser, boasting "that reform alone saves billions of dollars."

Fiorina said seniors would still be able to choose whether to participate in Medicare "Part D," which provides subsidized drug benefits. Under McCain's proposal, affluent seniors would pay higher premiums than retirees who are less well off when they join.

That idea has been part of President Bush's budget submissions for the past two years, and has been greeted coldly by both Congress and the AARP, which complains that it erodes the delicate deal that Republicans brokered in creating the popular prescription drug benefit in 2003.

Last October, Bush signaled he would try again, working with Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who has been a champion of the idea.

"I will be looking constantly for ways to put this before the Senate," Ensign said at the time.

McCain aides said tonight that the drug benefit changes were part of a desire on the part of the all-but-certain GOP nominee to control government spending. They said the specifics of exactly who would pay more, and how much, would be worked out later.

"You could make this as aggressive as you want to get more savings," said Doug Holtz-Eakin, McCain's top policy adviser.

Democrats accused McCain of offering "nothing new" in the way of cures for an ailing economy.
"His answer for people struggling with skyrocketing drug prices is to make some people pay more?" asked Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, after the aides finished a conference call with reporters Monday evening.

Earlier, the DNC issued a statement saying that McCain's health-care plan "copies ... President Bush's, won't reduce the ranks of the uninsured, and would leave people with preexisting conditions uninsured."

McCain's drug proposal is one part of a broader speech that aides described as "big and ambitious." He will deliver it at Carnegie Mellon University this morning.

In it, aides said McCain will also call for "a pause" in discretionary spending increases to allow for a "top-down review" of all government programs and agencies except veterans benefits and military spending. That proposal also mirrors the freeze in discretionary spending that Bush has had in place for the past several years.

Fiorina and Holz-Eakin said McCain will propose greater transparency in government by posting the results of the reviews in "plain and simple English" on the Internet. And he will again call for a freeze in adding to the nation's strategic petroleum reserves to ease pressure on gas prices.
He will also reiterate his plan to help struggling homeowners by allowing some access to federal mortgage assistance, they said.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 14, 2008; 8:21 PM ET
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