GOP, Dems Ready Medicare Messages

Recess means Medicare messaging to members on both sides of the aisle.

The Hill, DC (04.06.06) By Patrick O'Connor

The controversial prescription-drug plan remains a major election issue as the deadline approaches for senior citizens to enroll.

Both parties believe that by November the Medicare drug benefit will be a plus for them. Democrats scored political points in January and February as the Bush administration dealt with major complaints about the implementation of the benefit. Since then, the criticisms have eased.

In preparation for the upcoming recess, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio) assembled an 18-member whip team last month to ensure that her GOP colleagues would get out the message on the plan.

As of yesterday afternoon, members of the conference had already scheduled more than 200 town hall meetings with their constituents to explain the plans.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been counting down the days until the May 15 deadline during floor statements over the past few weeks, and their members are also expected to hold town hall meetings over the break.

The Democratic message on the drug plan is twofold: First, they want to make sure that seniors have signed up by the deadline, or else suffer "Bush's 7 percent drug tax," a Democratic spokeswoman said, and second, they have introduced legislation to give seniors an additional six months to sign up for the plans.

Seniors must pay a 7 percent penalty if they enroll after this year's deadline.

Congressional Democrats would also like the see the secretary of health and human services negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies in much the same way that the Department of Veterans Affairs negotiates drug prices on behalf of its beneficiaries.

Democrats will be assisted in their fight by Americans United, a Democratic-leaning interest group that remains vocally opposed the drug plan and has run television ads in the districts of vulnerable members who supported it.

Pryce has made the prescription-drug plans a hallmark of Republican outreach during the upcoming two-week recess. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Mark McClellan were the guest of a pre-conference breakfast last Wednesday to discuss the plans, and Gary Andres, from Dutko Worldwide, was a guest yesterday to discuss outreach on the drug plans.

The conference office has dedicated 23 pages of its recess manual to talking points and other advisories about the drug plan, including sample op-eds and guidelines for running a town hall meeting. The office has also distributed statistical information to each member office about the district and is sending daily bulletins to member offices about "success stories in Medicare," conference spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said.

Reps. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) and Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), as leaders of the healthcare public-affairs team, have taken active roles in the outreach, as has Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-Fla.).

Brown-Waite has been particularly vocal on the issue because her constituents suffered from many of the glitches that plagued the drug benefit earlier this year.