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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Michael Leavitt
Michael Leavitt
Secretary of Health and Human Services

June 16, 2005

Michael Leavitt
Good afternoon, this is Mike Leavitt. I am the Secretary of Health and Human Services. I'm pleased to be answering questions about the Medicare part D, prescription drug benefit. This afternoon, the President kicked off our effort to provide information on the drug benefit. We will be reaching out to Seniors and persons with disabilites in many ways. For example, information is provided on our website People can also use the telephone 1-800 MEDICARE.

For nearly a decade people have asked that Medicare be brought into the 21st century and offer drug benefits and preventive care. The President and Congress have delivered. It is now time for us to deliver by assuring that every American has the information needed to participate.

This new benefit is actually more than a drug benefit. It represents a new way of thinking; rather than thinking just about treatment, we are rigorously pursuing ways to keep people healthy.

Catherine, from Washington, D.C. writes:
Thanks for taking my question One of the most important messages for seniors to hear about the new drug benefit is that it really is insurance-- not just savings off their current prescription drug costs, but protection against costs they may incur in the future. But as much as we want seniors with relatively low drug costs to sign up, it may be hard to motivate them to do so. Does the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have a specific strategy for targeting beneficiaries with low drug costs? Have you developed a message around the idea of insurance? Thanks again.

Michael Leavitt
It is important to remember that this is, in fact, an insurance benefit. Many Americans who have limited income will receive it for nothing, or near nothing. However, they will still need choose a plan that is good for them.

Some Americans will need to pay up to $37 a month. Those that do will find the peace of mind it brings to be valuable. The plan follows a simple formula; the more financial need, the more help is given.

Hal, from Portland, OT writes:
What is the importance of Health IT in Medicare today?

Michael Leavitt
It is important to Medicare, but it is equally important to the entire system. As you may know the President has set a goal to have electronic health records available to every American within the next decade. That would include all Medicare beneficiaries.

Bradford, from Park City, UT writes:
Governor/Secretary Leavitt,I am trying to learn more about the Medicare/Medicaid problem from all sides. What are some good sources I can reference to study the issue in depth? I have little understanding, so I would like something that starts at the beginning.


Michael Leavitt
First of all, it's nice to hear from a fellow Utahn. I've heard you had great snow this year, but lots of run off.

On your question, may I suggest that you start with the HHS website. It will lead you to information on both subjects. The site is

Bret, from Colorado Springs, Co writes:
How do you see the involvement of faith-based institutions as a part of the solution to the problems facing the current and future health-care challenges facing America? Bret

Michael Leavitt
Bret, one example is the new Medicare part D prescription drug benefit. We are hopeful that many from the faith community will help educate their members and others in the community. We had several in attendance today at the President's speech on the subject.

Another example is Association Health Plans. It is possible in the future that some faith organizations may wish to organize their own plan.

Claudia, from Washington, DC writes:
I'm on disability and live in public housing. I saw you on MSNBC discussing the new medicare laws effective Jan. 1, 2006. There was only a brief mention that Medicaid recipients would be switched to Medicare. My question is: Under Medicaid I pay $1.00 for my precriptions. Will that change? Thanks, Claudia

Michael Leavitt
Claudia, there will be a minimal co-pay associated with most plans, but there will be a maximum limit for those on Medicaid.

JoAnn, from Pennsylvania writes:
I would like to know what the Bush administration is going to do about health care? I hope something is done soon. Hospitaliztion costs are out of sight.

Between insurance costs and taxes that must come out of our budget,that is one big chunk from the pie. People that I come in contact with have the same concern as I do when it comes to health care. I have a lot of faith in President Bush and this administration to do something. I would hope that you would address this issue. Thank you for this opportunity to ask my question.

Michael Leavitt
I share your concern, and I know the President does also. In 1960 health care was only 5.1% of the Gross Domestic Product, today it is nearly 15.3%. It is a complex question, but let me offer at least three major things we can do. First, we need to change our focus from just treatment of disease to prevention. When I was head of the EPA, I learned an important lesson. It is more costly to clean up pollution than it is to prevent it. The same is true in health care. We must rigorously pursue wellness. That is one of the reasons the President worked so hard on the Medicare Modernization Act. It allows us to provide $500 for prescriptions that prevent ulcers rather than paying $28,000 for surgery later.

A second thing we can do is change the incentives of our program. Under many insurance plans, consumers have no reason to be cost conscious.

Lastly, there is enormous efficiency to be gained with health information technology. The current system is just saturated with inefficiency and technology will help.

Before I finish I should also mention medical malpractice reform. Lawsuits drive up the cost substantially.

Darin, from Charleston, SC writes:
Mr. Secretary, Why do we deem the persrcition drugs from Canada as "Unsafe"? It is the same drugs that we export to Canada. It seems to a lot of Americans that this is a ploy of the drug and insurance companies to continue to have a stangle hold on America. Wouldn't it be more fiscally responsible of us to alow Medicare to purchase these drugs at a lower rate?

Michael Leavitt
You are right, if we could guarantee their safety that might make sense, but let me tell you about something I experienced recently.

The FDA found a website called Canadian Generics. It has a Canadian flag and all types of references that would lead you to believe it was just across the border. We investigated and found some interesting things. First, the website's ISP was in China. The website was hosted in Belize; the check we sent them was cashed in the Virgin Islands; and the postmark was Dallas, Texas.

That wasn't the end. We had the drugs they sent us tested. All of them had big variations in the active ingredients from what was represented on the label. One of the drugs was in a remarkably well faked package. You couldn't tell it from the manufacturer's package. It was a syringe that contained a clear liquid. When we tested it, it turned out to be tap water.

M., from Los Angeles, CA writes:
Secretary Leavitt:How will the President's Medicare bill affect prescription drug coverage for HIV and AIDS patients? I am very concerned for the thousands of Americans living with HIVAIDS who have come to rely on the program and may not have other options for care. Please address this concern.

Thank you.

Michael Leavitt
All the drugs in the HIV/AIDS category are to be covered. It is likely that more people will have access because of expanded coverage.

Karen, from Plano, TX writes:
I want to encourage my mother to apply for the new drug card, but she tells me that all of her friends have found the application process too confusing and more trouble than it's worth. Tell me, what is the incentive for seniors to want to switch from their current plans? Is it a fact that everyone will save money? I'm not going to push her to something that won't be any better than what she has today.

Michael Leavitt
The application for the new benefit will be highly simplifed. I think your Mother will feel good about it. Incidentially, we're counting on people all over American to help their parents fill it out.

Cliff, from Brimfield Ohio writes:
Secretary Leavitt: Social Security vs Medicare, Social Security is on the front burner and Medicare on the back burner. But Medicare seems to be the larger fire, is it?

Michael Leavitt
Both are big problems. The President has taken them both on. The Medicare Modernization Act of 2003 was a major improvement. We are all hopeful that the Congress will act soon to improve Social Security's sustainability.

Bill, from Redmond, Wash. writes:
Secretary Leavitt, thank you for your service and for taking our questions today. What is the status of the President's prescription drug plan? It seems that increasing costs make it impossible for seniors on a fixed income to meet expenses and still maintain a decent quality of life in retirement.

Michael Leavitt
Today the President opened a new site to the White House website. It is called In Focus: Strengthening Medicare. You will find that helpful. Also, you could go to

Thanks for joining us today.

Marta, from Coral Gables, Florida writes:
I tried to sign my mother up for the medicare discount card but found the process confusing. Any suggestions on where I can go to find out more information? Gracias

Michael Leavitt
Try calling 1800 Medicare for help. We're working hard to assure that the new Prescription Drug Benefit is easy to enroll in. We are also working with each states health insurance assistance program.

By the way, I'm to be in Florida on Monday to talk to people about Medicare.

Robert, from Ohio writes:
How many people participate in Medicare and what are the qualifications? I am only 35 now and realize that I am probably a long way from signing up, but is there anything I need do now to prepare to join the program in the future?

Michael Leavitt
Nearly 43 million people qualify. Without a disability, a person must be 65 years old.

Ellen, from Birmingham writes:
I have always found the debate over Medicare, and health care in general, difficult to understand and I am often more confused by news coverage that seem to consistently fail to explain these complex issues. Seems to me that health is a personal responsibility -- if people just took better care of themselves by eating right and exercising, then there will be fewer health problems. What role do you think government should play in ensuring that America stays healthy?

Michael Leavitt
This is the reason that President Bush has been placing so much emphasis on wellness. For example, obesity and overweight contribute substantially to diabetes. By preventing diabetes we contribute to the health of our nation physically and fiscally.

Michael Leavitt
I've enjoyed being with you today. If we were not able to answer your question in the time available I hope you will check the new website In Focus: Strengthening Medicare. It is a link from the White House website. Or, you could look at Also, may I ask that if you have parents or other loved ones who are eligible for Medicare that you give them the help necessary to make this important decision.

Mike Leavitt
Department of Health and Human Services