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BUSH tours hospital to promote Medicare overhaul

Updated:

BALTIMORE (AP) _ Pushing his plan to overhaul Medicare, President Bush told doctors at one of the nation's leading hospitals Friday the United States must ensure that quality health care is enjoyed by all Americans - including the poorest, elderly citizens.

``There are going to be some seniors who aren't going to be able to afford much,'' Bush told an audience of doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital. ``Our government must be kind.''

He called on Congress to ``set aside the political bickering.'' and take the steps necessary to bring Medicare up to date.

``Medicare may be the best intention of man, but it's not very modern today,'' Bush said.

He also said that if seniors opt to stay with traditional Medicare coverage, they would experienced ``no change, no threats, no problems.''

Bush toured the hospital's Wilmer Eye Institute, where researchers are working on an experimental double laser treatment for age-related macular degeneration. That's a condition, afflicting mostly the elderly, that erodes central vision and ruins the ability to read, drive or see faces.

Dr. Morton Goldberg explained that the laser treatment had been effective in laboratory rats but had not yet been used on humans. He said that he hopes to provide the treatment to Medicare recipients within four years, but was uncertain whether Medicare would cover it. If Medicare does cover the treatment, he told Bush, about 200,000 patients could be helped each year.

Goldberg also showed Bush much simpler magnifying equipment that could help nearly blind senior citizens. None of the devices is covered by Medicare, Goldberg said.

``It will if we get reform,'' Bush said.

The president hoped to underscore the need to ensure that seniors covered by Medicare receive the same access to cutting-edge medical treatments as those covered by private health plans, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

``This is new technology that holds the promise for curing very debilitating conditions,'' Fleischer said. ``But because it's still in experimental mode, a determination has to be made on whether Medicare will cover it. ... The private sector is way ahead.''

There is a 10-to-15 year lag between the emergence of new, experimental treatments and Medicare approval, Fleischer said.

The visit provided Bush with another platform for promoting Medicare reforms that he outlined Thursday. Those included having more HMOs and private health plans to compete for seniors' business within Medicare, competition he says can lead to better service, lower premiums and other benefits like complete drug coverage.

Bush is also advocating a prescription drug discount program that the administration could begin without congressional approval. As soon as this fall, Medicare would endorse and promote several privately administered prescription drug discount cards, like those now offered by pharmaceutical and other companies.

The cards would be free or cost at most $25, and save Medicare recipients 25 percent in typical pharmacy purchases, or as much as 50 percent for mail-order drugs, White House officials said.

That plan is criticized by opponents because Medicare would not subsidize the cost of medicines, nor negotiate prices with drug makers. Private card managers said Thursday they could help Medicare seniors get good deals on their medicines.

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On the Net:

Johns Hopkins Medicine: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/

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