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Bush promotes Medicare drug plan in Maple Grove
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President George W. Bush talks with people who attended his town hall meeting in Maple Grove Friday, about the Medicare prescription drug benefit. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
President Bush made a brief stop in suburban Minneapolis Friday to promote prescription drug coverage options soon to be available to Medicare recipients. Bush appeared at the Maple Grove Community Center before several hundred invited guests. His visit brought out hundreds of supporters and critics for a duel of signs and slogans. A few small arguments broke out as competing demonstrators jockeyed to be seen by the television cameras and the president's passing motorcade.

Maple Grove, Minn. — The president urged people in the friendly crowd to help senior citizens apply for the new drug coverage, which goes into effect January 1, 2006.

BUSH MAKES HIS CASE

President Bush hailed the new Medicare prescription drug benefit as a great way for senior citizens and people with disabilities to get more control of the increasing cost of prescription medicine.

Throughout his roughly 30-minute appearance in Maple Grove, Bush appealed to anyone who's around senior citizens to make them aware of the new drug coverage and to help them sign up for one of the plans.

"This is a good deal. I recognize that part of the problem we have is to convince people who don't really -- some people don't want to change," said Bush. "You kind of get set in your ways, and it's just kind of inconvenient to change. But in this case, take a look at the change. Take a look at this program because it's worthwhile."

Medicare recipients can begin enrolling in the new drug plans this fall, which is when details about the various options will be made public.

Not all who are eligible will benefit from enrolling in plans. That depends on the type of insurance they already have. But Bush says those who can enroll will save, on average, more than $1,300 a year.

Unlike many of his town hall-style meetings around the nation this year, President Bush didn't mention his proposal to add private investment accounts to Social Security, nor did he talk about national security, judicial nominees or reform of the legal system.

Instead, he focused exclusively on Medicare drug coverage. He repeatedly appealed to people to get the word out about the new program.

"One reason we used the senior center here is to say to folks who've got a senior center, in Texas or anywhere else, is 'Do your duty, find out what we're talking about and then educate people,'" said Bush. "I'm confident that when the senior centers realize what's available, and realize how easy it is to get information, and how simple it is to pass on the information, that people across the country will respond."

Several people joined President Bush on stage for his "Conversation on Medicare," as the White House labeled it. Among them was Steve Preston, who runs a chain of pharmacies in the Duluth-Superior area. Preston expressed optimism the new coverage will help many people.

It's just another program for the big drug companies and the health insurance companies and so forth. If he wanted to help the seniors he'd make it simpler, and the same for everybody.
- Protester Lee Bowten

"We see them (seniors) every day struggle with the cost, and making choices as to how they're taking their medicines, and skipping days, and not getting their prescriptions at all," said Preston. "It just drives us crazy that we've been at this point where we could never do anything to help them, other than to cut our costs. So it's going to be wonderful that there's a program out there to help all seniors."

The Minnesota DFL calls the new Medicare drug plans a boon to the pharmaceutical industry, and confusing to consumers. Democrats maintain the best way to bring down the cost of medicine would be to allow the re-importation of medicine from other countries, where they're often less expensive than in the U.S.

Under the plan, after the beneficiary pays a $250 deductible, Medicare pays three-fourths of the next $2,250 in drug costs. There is no benefit between $2,250 and $5,100, a $2,850 gap in coverage. But once a beneficiary has spent $3,600 on drugs out-of-pocket, including the deductible and copays, the government pays all but 5 percent of additional drug costs.

The White House says most of the roughly 400 people who attended the event were there at the invitation of the Maple Grove Community Center and Fairview Health Services.

Medicare recipient Don Loizeaux says he got his ticket from the office of 6th District Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican. Loizeaux left impressed with President Bush.

"He's got a tough job. and I thought he did a terrific job of making people aware of a program that's really a darn good program," said Loizeaux.

Bush's approval rating has been seriously slipping in the polls in Minnesota and nationally. A Star Tribune survey conducted in May found just 42 percent of Minnesotans approved of the way he's handling his job. That's the lowest number of his presidency.

A newly released New York Times national poll also showed the president's approval rating at 42 percent.

That might be one reason Bush began focusing attention this week on the new Medicare benefits, and not on his controversial proposal to change Social Security.

Bush stressed his sincerity about the bottom-line value of the new drug benefits.

"This isn't political talk. This is true. And I encourage people to take a look at this program."

It's been months since President Bush has visited Minnesota, but political analysts say politics will likely be bringing him back frequently to help GOP congressional candidates with their 2006 campaigns.

THE SCENE OUTSIDE

Friends and foes of the president mixed like oil and water along the sidewalk near the Maple Grove Community Center. Early on, it was a decidedly pro-Bush crowd. Donna Henke of Maple Grove brought her family and some old campaign signs to cheer on the president.

"I believe in his values, his morals, his platform. I'm a true Republican and we just felt we needed to be here," said Henke. "These are my daughters and my husband and some fellow supporters, and it's a beautiful day in Minnesota. It's exciting."

Many like-minded demonstrators were feeling a similar excitement as they waited to catch of glimpse of the president in his passing limousine. Debra Haberling of Maple Grove wasn't surprised by the turnout of supporters.

"I think he's a popular president. And I think for the most part people support everything he stands for, especially his values," said Haberling.

But as the morning passed, more and more opposing views could be seen among the crowd and the signs they carried. Lee Bowten traveled from Milaca to let the president know she's against his stand on Medicare and prescription drugs.

"It's just another program for the big drug companies and the health insurance companies and so forth," said Bowten. "If he wanted to help the seniors he'd make it simpler, and the same for everybody."

Although the president was in Minnesota to talk about prescription drugs, most of his detractors outside were protesting Social Security reform. Several dozen people carried yellow and black signs that read "Hands Off My Social Security."

Organizer Zach Rodvold tried unsuccessfully to get some seniors invited into the town hall meeting to offer the president some feedback.

"It looks like, as other events that he's done in the past have gone, that it's not a real discussion. It's show, where they recruit people who agree with him. And we're a little disappointed in that," said Rodvold.

Most of the demonstrators were content to hold their signs in silence. Others squabbled with their counterparts on a variety of issues. Iraq was a common theme in these sidewalk debates.

The competing camps also engaged in an informal game with passing motorists, urging them to honk their horns or respond to their particular point of view. The game eventually went bad when politics apparently clouded a driver's view of the road, as well as a red light and the car in front of him.

The driver, a Bush supporter, rear-ended the car in front of him, and was met with cheers and laughter from Bush opponents.

Police quickly cleared the intersection. There were no apparent injuries from the rear-end collision.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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