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Interesting Times

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 15, 2006; 11:39 AM

It may rank up there as one of the greater Bush understatements of all time.

Taking his talk-show-style, no-dissenters-allowed road show to upstate New York yesterday -- this time to defend his administration's Medicare prescription drug benefit -- President Bush uncorked a whopper about the program's botched rollout:

"Anytime Washington passes a new law, sometimes the transition period can be interesting," he said.

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "That was something of an understatement. The White House was flooded with complaints about retirees who could not obtain their drugs at the promised discount, and [as Robert Pear reported on Monday,] independent pharmacists from Texas complained in recent days to Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff and political strategist, that they had been forced to give out millions of dollars of prescription drugs and had not been reimbursed."

"Interesting isn't the word senior citizen advocates use to describe it," writes Judith Graham in the Chicago Tribune.

" 'It's an enormous mess . . . a real nightmare,' said Jeanne Finberg, an attorney at the National Senior Citizens Law Center."

Graham got an up-close look at the kinds of problems Medicare recipients are facing when she tried to help Frank Cartalino, a transplant patient, figure out why his pharmacy had suddenly billed him $500 for the drugs he needs to stay alive, and that used to be covered.

"It took more than a dozen phone calls for the Tribune to sort through the mind-numbing complexities of Medicare and figure out where things had gone wrong," she writes.

"Days of research revealed the root of his problem: Staff members working with pharmacies, insurance plans and government agencies don't really understand how Medicare's new drug benefit coordinates with other parts of the vast health program. And thousands of patients with organ transplants and other illnesses are getting caught in the middle."

Here's some more background on the "interesting period":

Ceci Connolly wrote in The Washington Post in January: "Two weeks into the new Medicare prescription drug program, many of the nation's sickest and poorest elderly and disabled people are being turned away or overcharged at pharmacies, prompting more than a dozen states to declare health emergencies and pay for their life-saving medicines."

Local papers have chronicled the debacle in their backyards.

Peggy O'Farrell wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer last month: "Eight weeks after coverage started, seniors are confounded by the fine print and confused by what's covered and what's not. . . .

"Locally, seniors say the sheer number of plans makes it impossible to methodically choose the right coverage. They're frustrated by an inability to access Medicare's Web site for help and to get through on Medicare's toll-free phone line to enroll. When they do reach workers at the agency's call centers, seniors say answers are likely to conflict with each other."

Kathleen O'Dell writes in the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader: "Pharmacists went to bat for bewildered seniors when the Medicare prescription drug program began Jan. 1. For weeks on end they intervened by phone and fax so customers got their drugs, at the price they were promised.

"Now independent pharmacists are having problems of their own with Medicare Part D, and they say it could force some of them to drop their hallmark small-town service or close their doors for good."

Christopher Snowbeck writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "For potentially thousands of lower-income Medicare recipients, the benefit of free drugs from pharmaceutical companies is suddenly becoming a burden.

"If they decide to stay with the free drugs and not enroll in the new Medicare Part D drug program by May 15, they'll have to pay an increasingly large penalty to get in later should their medical needs or the pharmaceutical companies' programs change.

"The Catch-22 situation is another example of how the new benefit, which promises help to people who previously lacked drug coverage, has created confusing or difficult decisions for beneficiaries already receiving some sort of pharmacy benefit."

According to a Kaiser Health poll , senior citizens are now "almost twice as likely to say they view the benefit unfavorably (45%) as favorably (23%)."

And in the New York Times last month, Robin Toner traced the rocky start to the underlying vision, "an effort to blend a classic big government program from the Great Society with the conservative, market-oriented philosophy of the Republicans in power. . . .

"Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health research group, calls it 'a compromise between competing ideologies shoehorned into a fixed budget.' He added, 'I think it was preordained from the moment they passed it that it would be historically complicated to implement.' "

Tuesday's Show

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For 34 minutes, the president was the emcee of a traveling infomercial, calling on his experts to talk about the drug program's benefits. The participants included the head of the Medicare program, the manager of a grocery chain's local pharmacies, and a retired couple who had signed up for the program and had little but praise for it."

Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush tried on Tuesday to tamp down complaints by retirees and pharmacists about the start of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, acknowledging that problems plagued its early days.

"In an echo of speeches conceding errors in the responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq reconstruction, and in which he insisted that the problems were being resolved, Mr. Bush told a group of pharmacists and Medicare participants here that he had expected that the program would have a rocky start."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Many Democrats have been critical of the plan, saying the administration has botched its rollout and set it up so that the program is a boon mainly to big health care providers.

" 'The Medicare drug program has been a nightmare for America's seniors and is clear evidence of the Bush administration's shocking incompetence,' said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)."

Bush made two stops in tiny, Republican Canandaigua yesterday. First he chaired a roundtable of panelists, then he spoke to senior citizens at a senior center.

At the center, he explained things this way: "The problem is, is that when something changes people get a little concerned, you know -- 'I'm not so sure I want to see a change; I'm not so sure change is something that I'm interested in.' And I knew that was going to be the case.

"But I also knew that if we could convince people who pay attention to take a look and see what options were available, that people would begin to make rational choices, particularly if they had some help."

But Bush didn't exactly stick around to help them fill out their forms, leaving that to unspecified others.

"Everybody explaining Medicare to you -- the new deal?" Bush asked a crowd in one room, according to the Associated Press . "I hope so. It's worth looking at."

Opinion Watch

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle editorial board, looking hard for something to like in Bush's visit to the area, nevertheless called on the president to do more.

"Quips like the one Bush made about being a 'C' student make people comfortable. And insisting, with conviction, that the new drug benefit is 'a good deal' no doubt scored points for Bush's troubled presidency. But if he hopes to make significant political gain, Bush must go beyond his guy-next-door salesmanship and acknowledgment that the program had 'some early challenges' when it was introduced in January."

More Today

Bush returns to the issue this afternoon, when he speaks at the Riderwood Village retirement community in Silver Spring, Md.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, eager to hear your questions and comments .

Censure Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold accused fellow Democrats on Tuesday of cowering rather than joining him on trying to censure President Bush over domestic spying.

" 'Democrats run and hide' when the administration invokes the war on terrorism, Feingold told reporters."

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "For months the Democrats have resisted calls from their liberal base to more aggressively challenge President Bush. Now a maverick Democratic senator from Wisconsin has forced his party and Congress to confront head-on the question of whether Bush should somehow be punished for secretly ordering warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column: "At a time when Democrats had Bush on the ropes over Iraq, the budget and port security, Feingold single-handedly turned the debate back to an issue where Bush has the advantage -- and drove another wedge through his party."

Catherine Dodge writes for Bloomberg: "A Democratic senator's attempt to censure President George W. Bush over his eavesdropping authorization is getting a warm welcome from unlikely sources: the Bush White House and the Republican Party."

A Poll on Censure?

But what if the country's actually for censure? How would we know?

Could we, maybe, find out?

The Mystery Pollster blogged yesterday: "The proposal by Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) to censure President Bush over the domestic eavesdropping program crossed an important threshold this morning. It was mentioned in all the major 'mainstream' newspapers and at least two cable news networks (CNN and Fox). As such, it appears to meet the criteria that pollsters have offered as when considering whether to include a topic in national news media polls."

Iraq Watch

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Last December, during his previous series of speeches on Iraq war strategy, Bush succeeded in halting a year-long slide in opinion polls. But the atmospherics were somewhat different. Iraq had just held elections, a tangible sign of progress that Americans noticed. Three months later, Iraqis are still struggling to form a government. . . .

"Another change from December is the growing chorus of conservatives - including some of the 'neoconservative' variety, who had long pushed for preemptive action against Iraq - now arguing that the Iraq war is a failure and that it's time for the US to get out. Former neocon Francis Fukuyama, author of a new book highly critical of Bush's handling of Iraq, writes: 'By invading Iraq, the Bush administration created a self-fulfilling prophecy: Iraq has now replaced Afghanistan as a magnet, a training ground and an operational basis for jihadists, with plenty of American targets to shoot at.' "

Peter Baker and Bradley Graham write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's objective of turning over most of Iraq to Iraqi troops by the end of the year appears achievable given recent progress in training new security forces, but even if he meets the goal it would not necessarily mean that the end of the war would be in sight, military analysts said yesterday."

And isn't this one of those "artificial timetables" Bush has said would aid the enemy?

" 'It's not a deadline. It's a goal,' national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said in an interview. 'It's an articulation in a fairly concrete way of what he's been saying we want to be doing for a while. . . . What the president was doing was suggesting where we would like to be by the end of the year. Whether we get there will depend on developments on the ground, progress in the war against terrorists, the training and all the rest.' "

So how about some more benchmarks?

The Houston Chronicle editorial board writes: "Even the hint of a benchmark for U.S. withdrawal, consistent as it is with Bush's statements to stay until Iraqis can fight for their liberty and destiny, serves several good purposes."

The Claude Allen Saga

The Talking Points Memo document collection now includes the detailed charging document against Claude Allen, who was Bush's chief domestic policy adviser at the time of his arrest for committing fraudulent returns.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Bush nominated Allen to be a federal appeals court judge in 2003, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate in a dispute over state representation on the court. Democrats also objected to Allen's short legal experience of roughly seven years.

"At his confirmation hearing, Allen also had to answer for a statement he made when he was press secretary on Sen. Jesse Helms' 1984 campaign. He told a North Carolina newspaper that Helms' opponent, Gov. James Hunt Jr., was vulnerable because of his links 'with the queers.' He testified that he didn't mean to disparage gays, but was describing the odd people around Hunt's campaign.

"He was also asked how he felt when Helms voted against legislation that created the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. 'It was the most difficult day for me in my life,' Allen replied.

"Allen has not responded to interview requests, so it's not clear whether he ranks his recent days as worse."

Covenant Life Church pastor Joshua Harris writes on the church's Web site that he and his fellow pastors "are providing pastoral care for Claude. We've spent extended time with him in the past few days, and will continue to do so in the days ahead.

"Claude has invited our care. Our role is not to provide legal counsel. Our concern is for his soul. Our desire -- and Claude shares this -- is for him to walk with humility and integrity."

The Shakeup Rumors Continue

ABC News reports this morning: "Two Republican sources close to the White House have confirmed to ABC News that in recent days there has been talk of making staff additions to the Bush team to bring a steadying influence to the White House. One says the president's advisers are in a self-examination mode after a spate of bad news."

Frederic J. Frommer writes for the Associated Press: "Saying the White House has been afflicted by a political 'tin ear,' Sen. Norm Coleman on Tuesday called on President Bush to bring in a new team.

" 'I have some concerns about the team that's around the president,' said Coleman, a Minnesota Republican with close ties to Bush. 'I think you need to take a look at it.' "

Prewar Intel Watch

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The Senate Intelligence Committee has moved toward completing its long-awaited investigation of the Bush administration's prewar assertions about Iraq, with three of five sections nearly finished, the committee's chairman said Tuesday."

But wait. Turns out that Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) "acknowledged that drafts of the two most controversial sections were the ones that were not finished, and he provided no time frame for completing them."

One of those sections is an analysis of whether administration officials had adequate intelligence to back up their prewar public statements.

And there's no need for suspense. It sounds like Roberts already knows what his committee will conclude on that front: "Roberts said that investigators had found adequate intelligence to back up the administration's public assertions.

" 'You could make an intelligent justification for every statement,' Roberts told reporters."

The Hunt for Abu Abdullah

Youssef M. Ibrahim , a former New York Times reporter turned Dubai businessman, writes in a USA Today opinion column: "On the first day of the firestorm involving Dubai's purchase of a global port management company, I phoned my friend Rashid al-Oraimi, opinion editor at Al Ittihad, a government-owned newspaper of the United Arab Emirates, to discuss the fierce reaction in the USA. No problem, Rashid said. The deal would go through 'because Abu Abdullah OK'd it.'

"Who is Abu Abdullah? I asked.

" 'George Bush, of course,' my friend answered, laughing, explaining that Abu Abdullah is the nickname given Bush in the inner circles of the Persian Gulf region.

"Funny indeed, but as it turned out it's the wrong answer in this case."

Funny indeed, but why Abu Abdullah? Just a sign of affection? The only similar citation I can find is a six-year-old Chicago Tribune story which says that Bush's father was known as Abu Adullah by his Kuwaiti friends. Although apparently some followers of Osama bin Laden call him Abu Abdullah, too.

If you know the answer, please weigh in during my Live Online today, or e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .

No Sir

Bill Brubaker writes for The Washington Post: "Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, said today he has no evidence the Iranian government has been sending military equipment and personnel into neighboring Iraq.

"On Monday, President Bush suggested Iran was involved in making roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, that are being used in Iraq. And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld last week accused Iran of sending members of its Revolutionary Guard to conduct operations in Iraq.

"Asked whether the United States has proof that Iran's government was behind these developments, Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Pentagon briefing, 'I do not, sir.' "

Skull and Bones Watch

Roger Runningen writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush sent to the Senate the nomination of long-time friend Robert D. McCallum Jr. as U.S. ambassador to Australia, just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pays her first visit to the American ally. . . .

"McCallum knows Bush from their time at Yale University, where both were members of the elite social group known as Skull and Bones."

Geoff Elliott writes in the Australian: "One source close to the Bush administration said it had dawned on the White House that the absence of an ambassador was going to overshadow Dr Rice's trip to Australia and the President moved to fill the gap.

"Mr McCallum, as a Department of Justice lawyer, has the security and financial clearances needed to take up the post -- unlike the previous candidates Mr Bush was contemplating, who were friends in the business world and Republican Party donors."

First Lady Roots for First Woman

The Associated Press reports: "Laura Bush said Tuesday the United States is ready to have a woman president -- preferably a Republican."

Not So Fast

A headline writer for Toronto's Globe and Mail seems to think we've got a monarchy down here: "Crown can seek death penalty in Moussaoui trial, judge says," reads a Globe and Mail headline today.

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