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White House criticizes Republican Medicare proposal; Officials say drug plan might exclude unfairly


WASHINGTON -- The White House criticized the House Republican proposal for Medicare coverage of prescription drugs yesterday, saying it "seems like a Swiss cheese plan with more holes than substance."

President Clinton's economic policy adviser, Gene Sperling, and his health policy coordinator, Chris Jennings, said they were frustrated by the lack of specifics in the Republican plan and disliked the details they knew.

The Republican plan, outlined last week, would use private insurance subsidized by the government to help pay drug costs for millions of people who are elderly or disabled.

Under Clinton's proposal, by contrast, drug coverage would become a standard part of the Medicare benefits package, available to anyone willing to pay an extra premium.

Sperling and Jennings said they hoped to work out a compromise with congressional Republicans on the issue, which will figure prominently in the presidential campaign and in many congressional races.

But the White House officials seemed surprised when they were asked, "What's your strategy to enact legislation?" They said they pinned their hopes on the Senate Finance Committee, where members of the two parties have a history of working together.

Under the Republican plan, Jennings said, private insurers might choose not to offer drug insurance in some areas of the country. "We don't know what provision of the proposal assures that all, most or even any Medicare beneficiaries will have access to the new drug benefit," he said.

The White House officials also said there was no guarantee that drug insurance would be affordable to middle-income people under the House Republican plan. Under the Republican plan, the government would help pay premiums for people with incomes up to 50 percent above the poverty level (up to $17,000 for a couple).

But this is not enough, the White House said, because more than half of the 12 million Medicare beneficiaries who lack drug coverage have incomes above that level.

On a related issue, the administration said yesterday that the financial outlook for Medicare was a little better than it had been.

Medicare will now have until 2025 before its hospital insurance trust fund runs out of money to pay benefits, officials said.

A report issued March 30 by trustees of the program said the trust fund would be exhausted by 2023.

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