LIBERTY — After Kansas City resident Wanda Blackmore drew a laugh from the audience near the end of Monday’s conversation on Medicare prescription drug discount cards, President Bush could not resist a lighthearted dig at the 74-year-old.
The topic was the $600 subsidy provided to low-income seniors under the new prescription drug plan. “It’s the only time I’ve been glad to be poor,” Blackmore said — her fourth laugh-inducing line of the afternoon.
“Who’s writing your material for you?” Bush fired back.
The banter reflected the mood during the discussion, which lasted over a half hour at the Liberty Community Center just north of Kansas City. Part campaign trip, part information session, part town hall meeting, the event gave Bush a chance to build support in a crucial presidential election swing state and put a positive spin on the new discount.
“We want our seniors to have the benefits of modern medicine in a way that’s affordable,” Bush said.
The discount card program, which began on June 1, is part of Medicare legislation signed into law by Bush in December. The cards are intended as a stopgap measure until the full prescription-drug benefit comes into effect at the beginning of 2006. Seniors can choose from a variety of discount cards; 73 companies have been approved by Medicare to issue the cards.
“We want there to be choices, different cards available,” Bush said. “That’s how you meet different needs.”
Bush was joined onstage in Liberty by Medicare administrator Mark McClellan, Blackmore, Gladys Cole, 73, of Kansas City, and a regional Medicare administrator. The five were flanked by more than 90 people, most of them seniors, as well as three banners that read “Keeping our Promise to Seniors.” Protesters lined the street outside the community center.
“I was glad to see so many citizens on the street, waving to us coming up,” Bush said to laughter from the crowd of more than 700.
After a few minutes of campaign-speech material, Bush addressed the issue at hand.
“Medicare, which had done a great job for many years, got stuck in the past,” Bush said. “Medicine began to change, but Medicare wouldn’t change with it. For years, politicians talked about modernizing Medicare, but nothing got done.”
Bush used Blackmore and Cole as examples of the savings available under the new cards. The women are two of the approximately 160,000 Missouri seniors who will qualify for the $600 low-income subsidy, which provided Cole a $100 savings on her $120 prescription drug purchase.
“(The pharmacist) told me what the savings was, and I about dropped my false teeth,” Cole said.
For seniors who don’t qualify for the subsidy, the discount card issue is somewhat hazier. Bush said the cards would save seniors at least 15 percent on brand-name drugs, with even greater savings on generic drugs. But Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa said in a conference call for reporters on behalf of the Kerry campaign that some drugs would be more expensive under the discount card plan.
“Take Lipitor. If you’re comparing the price with the card price, the card price can be $12 per month more expensive on the Bush plan,” Vilsack said. “That’s a difference of $144 a year.”
Critics also point out that seniors can only change cards once, during a period at the end of this year, while the companies that provide the cards can change their prices and drug lists on a weekly basis.
“This bill prohibits and prevents the federal government from negotiating for lower costs,” Vilsack said.
For Bush, however, the discount-card program represents a breakthrough in consumer choice.
“One of the things I believe is that markets have a fantastic way of rewarding consumers with better quality and better price,” Bush said.
Bush thanked Cole and Blackmore, his verbal sparring partner. “You have made the day much more credible,” Bush said. “Much more lively, too.”
--Missourian reporter Emily Dulcan contributed to this report