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In radio address, president says drug plan has kinks but is helping

WASHINGTON -- The new prescription drug benefit is helping a large majority of Medicare beneficiaries, President Bush said yesterday, while acknowledging that some patients have experienced problems. ''When you make a big change in a program involving millions of people, there are bound to be some challenges," Bush said in his weekly radio address. ''And this has been the case with the new drug coverage."

Under the Medicare Part D program, about 43 million elderly or disabled Americans are eligible to enroll in a private plan that will provide prescription drug coverage, subsidized by the federal government. Thanks to competition, the program is getting cheaper for beneficiaries and taxpayers, Bush said.

The average premium that beneficiaries pay is now expected to be about $25 a month instead of $37, as projected last year. The typical senior citizen will pay about half of what he or she used to spend on prescription drugs, the president said. However, the government estimates that several hundred thousand low-income beneficiaries had trouble making the transition to the new program. They had been getting their drugs through Medicaid, but that coverage ended Dec. 31.

The government was supposed to automatically enroll them in a private plan, but many were not included in the transfer. Others were charged more for medicine than they should have been under the program's rules. Dozens of states stepped in on an emergency basis to keep their poorest residents from going without medicine.

Bush said the government has responded to early problems by ensuring that drug plans have more up-to-date information about their customers. Plans have also been told they should provide an additional 60-day supply of drugs for beneficiaries who need a particular medicine not covered by their plan.

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, delivering the Democrats' weekly radio address yesterday, said Bush's budget proposals will hurt middle-class Americans. Menendez said the proposal doesn't deal effectively with rising health premiums and heating costs, and would continue to underfund student aid.

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