Prescription drug plan due this summer, Thompson says


Ending a weeklong fact-finding visit to the Baltimore area, federal Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said yesterday that he hopes to have a Medicare prescription drug proposal to Capitol Hill by the end of the summer.

Talk of prescription drugs dominated a forum yesterday involving Thompson and about 200 seniors and federal employees at the Health Care Financing Administration headquarters in Woodlawn.

Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor appointed to the HHS post by President Bush, set up the forum to meet with Medicare recipients and hear their concerns. Clients such as Vandy Miller of Silver Spring wasted little time getting to the point.

"Can you give us assurances that we're going to have prescription drug coverage?" Miller asked Thompson.

Thompson said Congress could be voting on a proposal by year end. "Everybody is working on it," he said.

The forum closed a week that Thompson spent at HCFA, which has about 4,000 employees and administers Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program for low-income families.

Thompson said the visit opened his eyes to the great responsibility of the agency.

Some people who attended the forum also expressed concerns about the shortage of nurses and the need to aid sagging health maintenance organizations. But prescription drugs stood out most on the minds of those who attended.

Esther "Tess" Canja, the national president of the American Association of Retired Persons, said that adding medicine coverage for the 40 million recipients would modernize Medicare.

"Prescription drug coverage is a 'must' for older persons just to live more active and fuller lives," Canja said.

Dr. Richard G. Bennett, a geriatric specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, agreed that Medicare, established in 1965, is failing to keep up with seniors' medicine needs.

Thompson said he hopes to create a patients' bill of rights and to increase the number of organ donations in the nation.

As HHS secretary, Thompason said he has "an awesome job and responsibility." He heads the federal government's largest agency with 60,000 employees and a $429 billion budget.

Forum participants such as Miller walked away yesterday satisfied with Thompson's answers.

"He made the right statements," Miller said. "I was very pleased."

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