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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.

Today's guest: Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson
June 11, 2003

Tommy Thompson
Good Afternoon. Nice to be with you today. Successful trip to Chicago -- which is part of a very busy week as the administration promotes Medicare modernization around the country. The President is going to Connecticut tomorrow to discuss Medicare, and I'll be giving a speech to the American Association of Health Plans. With that, I'll begin taking your questions.

James, from Portland, Oregon writes:
Hello! Dr. Secretary Thompson, I have a question. Do you plan to improve health care to give seniors citizens long-promised prescription drug benefits?

Thank you.

Tommy Thompson
I am very happy to be able to respond because the President has advanced a program under his statement of principles that has been incorporated into a Senate bill and House bill. The Senate bill includes the prescription drug benefits as does the House bill. The Senate bill is going to be voted on Thursday, June 12. It will incorporate prescription drug benefits, the president's statement of principles and it appears it will be passed out of the Finance Committee on a bipartisan basis tomorrow and reported to the senate floor on Monday. The Senate is allocating two weeks to debate this particular proposal and it intends to pass it before the end of June. The House bill, will be taken up in the last week of June and passed also in the month of June and then the two bills will have to be reconciled in a conference committee in July and will be then sent for passage in both the House and the Senate and on to the President for his signature. We are the closest to achieving long promised prescription drug benefits than we have ever been before. And it is really promising and extremely encouraging to see this happen in order to give our senior citizens prescription drug benefits.

Terry, from Vaughn, New Mexico writes:
Would you prefer to see more Medicare recipients enrolled in private plans?

Tommy Thompson
Yes, I would. We believe that it will benefit seniors as well as the Medicare system to allow seniors to have the same kind of choices that members of Congress and all federal employees have and that is what the new Medicare plan will provide. More choices, and private plans or as what we refer to as enhanced PPOs or seniors will be able to continue in the current Medicare system -- fee for service system -- or go into an HMO Medicare Advantage program. So all of these options give our seniors the choices that you and I have in the current health care delivery system. And now with the new Medicare reform strengthened plan we are going to extend those choices to our seniors, and all the choices -- whether they be the current fee for service Medicare government controlled system, or the PPOs and HMOs in private plans will include prescription drug coverage.

Kim, from Western Kentucky writes:
Hi Secretary Thompson, I was wondering if the Medicare proposal had any provisions for monitoring the high costs of prescriptions for seniors. Is there any way that some of the medicines from drug companies can be price adjusted based upon income? Thank you!

Tommy Thompson
That is exactly what the choices are going to accomplish. We're going to in the new Medicare system, put out for bids in the ten regions the opportunity for health insurance companies to bid on providing the Medicare coverage program or health plans with prescription drug coverage but only the three lowest bids will be accepted. Therefore, this competition and bidding process, which allows only the three lowest companies to participate in any region will drive down the high cost of health care and prescription drugs that the plans cover. We are also, in the department, through the FDA putting out a rule tomorrow limiting pharmaceutical companies to extend their patents, thus encouraging more and quicker generics to market which also will drive down the cost of prescription drugs.

Lorna, from Meridian Idaho writes:
TThank you for this opportunity to ask a question that is on a lot of people minds these days. I am 46 and disabled. I get Social Security disability based solely on my disability and not on my income which is only what my husband makes. My computer is my window to the world. My prescription medication costs are over 1500 a year. I buy generic whenever I can and at a US online pharmacy. I have been having my husband break my pills in half when my MD says it Ok to also save money. Like most younger disabled people I know, its our medications that help keep us as healthy as we can and our health costs down and help us remain as independent as we can safely be. How will the new Medicare prescription bill help someone like me? Most of what I have heard about so far is just for seniors. Thank you again for this opportunity to share with you my considers about this topic.

Tommy Thompson
It will help in several ways. The Medicare system is for seniors, but the Medicaid program which is a federal and state partnership program is for low-income and disabled Americans and the successes and efficiencies that the new Medicare-revised plan will accomplish will inure to the benefit of the State and federal government's plan as well. And with the President's leadership and my department's changes on generic drugs limiting the extension of pharmaceutical companies' patents to a certain time-limit and encouraging generics to compete with patented drugs and the opportunity legally to do so will improve and increase competition that also will lower drug costs and benefit your situation which will be helped by overall drug costs through the new Medicare plan and the changes on the rule on generics.

Catherine, from Seattle, Washington writes:
I am 49 and in excellent health, in equal parts genetic predisposition and consistent healthy lifestyle choices AND ACTIONS. I am surrounded in a sea of leading-edge baby boomers who are begging on hyperlipidemia, hypertension, type 2 diabetes and, because of other issues in their lives they refuse to address, a myriad of psychiatricpsychological problems, not the least of which is some type of chemical dependencies. WHY IS THERE NOT a FINANCIAL INCENTIVE IN MEDICARE TO INDUCE HEALTHIER LIFESTYLE ACTIONS OVER SUSTAINED PERIOD OF TIME? If my fellow baby boomers have spent their 4 decades earning LOTS OF money, but simultaneously destroying their bodies, why am I as I intend to be able to continue working well into my seventies because it will keep me mentally and physically fit longer and the NEXT generation, supposed to pay for it in outlandish Medicare taxes? I take great offense at having to pay taxes to support prescription drug habits that do nothing but induce people to cover up and avoid solving the problems.

Tommy Thompson
I would like to thank the questioner from Seattle, Washington for this question because this is exactly what the President and the Department of Health and Human Services are trying to accomplish. We are trying to change the Medicare system to encourage healthier lifestyles and prevent people from getting sick and then paying people to get well. Instead we are trying to prevent people from getting sick in the first place through preventive health measures in the new Medicare plan that will certainly reduce costs currently and especially in the future. The existing Medicare law spends 90 percent plus of their money on getting people well after they become sick and less than 10 percent of the resources to keep people well and not getting sick in the first place. We are trying to change this by encouraging people to not smoke, to eat correctly and to exercise as well as provide the medicines that will prevent people from ending up in the hospital or having to undergo an operation. So your question brings out exactly what we are trying to accomplish with our new Medicare plan.

Gail, from Houston, TX writes:
There was a report on NBC this morning which said the President would sign any Medicare bill that made it to his desk. Is this accurate?

Tommy Thompson

The President has a framework that sets forth the principles that encourages competition, prevention and includes prescription drug coverage and he outlined those principles again today in Chicago. And the President is very encouraged that Congress is making progress and he wants to encourage them to keep working together hopefully on a bi-partisan basis to work out our differences.

But the President is not going to sign any bill that doesn't accomplish reform, competition, and prescription drug benefits for all seniors. He wants a bill that will strengthen Medicare with more benefits and choices for seniors.

He isn't going to simply settle for adding more money to the current system without the above benefits that I've described.

Sydney, from Palmer, AK writes:
Please tell me why the Government has the power to dictate how I am to receive health benefits? At 64 years, I used my Blue Cross Blue Shield as a primary insurer. I was not working at the time. At 65, I was FORCED to use Medicare as my primary insurer. Choice was taken from me. I see this as an intrusion that has taken my civil rights from me and defacto relegated me to that status of a ward of the government. Why is it this arrangement between my insurer and the government tolerated?

Tommy Thompson
The questioner is absolutely correct and that is why the President and the administration want to give seniors more choices. It is exactly what they have currently before reaching age 65 and receiving Medicare. We want to replicate the system of choices that citizens have now before reaching Medicare age. We want to allow those individuals when they become Medicare-eligible, to have the same choices. And if you are on the Blue Cross plan you like, we want to give you the option to stay with that plan if you so desire when you reach 65. That is the President's plan and that is what we are trying to accomplish.

Shawnee, from Calistoga, California writes:
How is the proposed Medicare Choice program different from the current program? The current program has failed under the managed care model. How do you expect this new plan will be an improvement over the current model?

Tommy Thompson
The Medicare + Choice program is an HMO program. We are confident that just like 60 percent of Americans who are not in Medicare and choose PPOs as their way to be insured that they will choose this same choice when they become Medicare eligible.

Tommy Thompson
Thank you, I really appreciated this opportunity to answer some of your questions. I wish I could have answered more. For more information on the President's Medicare framework, please visit: or Thanks again. I look forward to doing this again soon.

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