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Bush Discusses Plans to Reform Medicare


BALTIMORE — President Bush brought his bully pulpit to one of America's best-known medical centers Friday, touting his own brand of health care reform as he completed a weeklong focus on an array of consumer medical issues.

Speaking to about 200 physicians and other health care professionals at Johns Hopkins Hospital, the president at one point struck a defiant tone, declaring that he is "not afraid" to take on Medicare reform even though his political opponents are all but certain to engage in what he derided as "Medi-scare" tactics.

In cycle after election cycle, Democrats have warned seniors that Republicans were out to change Medicare in ways that they said would curtail services and increase costs.

But Bush declared his intention to "seize the moment" and reiterated the principles that he said will guide his plan to reform and modernize the health care program for seniors.

"Now, I understand politics pretty well, and I'm afraid the American people do too. They've seen what happens with the Medicare issue. That's why, in the political vernacular, they call it 'Medi-scare'--because somebody who comes along and tries to do what's right will have the issue used against him for political purposes," he said.

"The truth of the matter is, I'm not afraid of the issue, because it's the right thing to do. We've got a lot of baby boomers like me fixing to retire, and we better make sure we modernize the system, make sure the system is whole and sound for tomorrow's seniors."

The president described reforming Medicare as "an incredibly important issue" and vowed to add coverage for prescription drugs.

"Prescription drugs needs to be an integral part of Medicare, not only the system that exists today but whatever options seniors choose to use in the future," Bush said.

He also urged Congress to enact a patients' bill of rights, endorsing one approach pending in the House of Representatives that contains tougher restrictions on the ability of HMO patients to file lawsuits. A more litigious system, Bush has warned, would increase insurance premiums and expand the ranks of America's uninsured, now estimated at 45 million people.

"It's really important that we not have our system laden down by unnecessary lawsuits; that when we pass legislation, we keep patients in mind and make sure patients have direct access to specialists, and make sure patients have the capacity to take their complaints to an independent review organization so that the complaint can be remedied quickly, not held up in a court of law," Bush said.

Hopkins officials said the White House had expressly asked for a small audience, and so the hospital staged Bush's appearance in a hall that holds only about 200 people.

The medical complex also has a newer and bigger hall with a seating capacity of 1,000. Early during the first Clinton term, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke here about her health care reform goals, she was met with an overflow crowd.

Virtually every day this week, sometimes more than once per day, Bush has spoken either in private or in public about the need to pass a patients' bill of rights and long-term Medicare reform, with prescription drug coverage. On Thursday, during a Rose Garden appearance, Bush also announced his intention to launch a federal program to encourage discount cards for prescription drugs for seniors as an interim step to defray the cost of outpatient prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries.

From Baltimore, Bush flew by helicopter to Camp David for the weekend. He is to return to the White House on Sunday evening, in time for more children's T-ball games on the South Lawn.

He leaves Wednesday for Europe, where he is to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London, attend a Group of 8 meeting in Genoa, Italy, and meet with Pope John Paul II in Vatican City. It will be Bush's second trip to Europe in a month.

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