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GOP Spotlights Medicare Drug Plan

With House Republicans’ short-term attention focused on CAFTA and their long-term eye on Social Security, it might seem unusual that they’re planning to hold a major event this Thursday on Medicare.

But while Medicare is not exactly on Congress’ front-burner, the leadership’s decision to spotlight it this week reflects the fact that, 19 months after they passed a landmark bill adding a prescription drug benefit to the program, Republicans are still busy selling it.

Thursday’s Republican Conference event, which coincides with this week’s 40th anniversary of the creation of Medicare, will include more than 100 representatives of trade associations and the business community, with the goal of drawing attention to the approaching start of the enrollment phase of the drug program.

“This is going to be a concerted effort by us to engage the business community to make seniors aware of this benefit that’s available to them,” said Conference spokesman Sean Spicer.

He explained that the elongated Medicare public relations effort stems from the drug bill’s unusually drawn-out implementation, which began with a phase in which seniors could sign up for drug cards. Soon, seniors will actually be able to enroll in the program.

Republicans will tout the Medicare bill with one eye toward 2006, when the votes of senior citizens could be even more crucial to victory than they were in 2004.

“Seniors make up a greater percentage of the electorate in any off-year,” noted Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Forti said that he did not see the Medicare issue as a potential political liability for Republicans, since it never became a major issue in any competitive race in the last cycle.

“At the very least it’s [neutral], if not a plus for Republicans,” he said.

House Republicans’ effort to publicize the Medicare benefit this week will complement a much larger media blitz by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which plans extensive tours and public events on the subject throughout the summer.

And last week, a coalition of businesses and trade associations called the Medicare Rx Education Network announced the launch of a $5 million advertising buy to remind viewers that all Medicare beneficiaries are eligible for the prescription drug benefit and that they can start signing up for the program Nov. 15.

All that work is necessary because polls taken since the Medicare bill’s passage have consistently shown that much of the public is confused about what exactly the measure did and how it would effect them. Many Democrats and other critics have been vocal in arguing that the prescription drug measure will not help many seniors and is unworkably complex.

And even if the bill’s passage seems like a political lifetime ago, Medicare is never far from voters’ minds. In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey taken in April, Medicare was tied with Social Security as the most “important” federal program to respondents — more so than even defense or education.

“Our intention is to make a big effort to get our Members to push for seniors to get involved in the prescription drug program,” said Ron Bonjean, spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “This is a good way to raise attention. … Seniors are always thinking about this issue and we need to show them that we’re on top of it.”