Medicare Plan May Be Good Medicine for Dems

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At first blush, they seem like numbers only a politician's calculator could reconcile. But there was Donna Shalala bravely insisting on "CBS This Morning" Sunday that President Clinton's Medicare plan could perform the impressive feat of both cutting the long-term costs of a program set to go belly-up in 2015 and at the same time provide a heavy subsidy for prescription drugs. Tab for that new program: at least $20 billion a year. Throw in an eleventh-hour decision to scrap means-testing (rich or poor will continue to pay the same premium, currently $45.50 a month) that could have saved billions and, as they say, you're talking about real money. The White House says the savings will come from increased efficiencies, competition between hospitals, and, um, raiding the cookie jar that is the federal budget surplus.

Here's how the numbers add up for campaign-trail Democrats: Cheaper prescription drugs could be the perfect carrot to attract seniors, 80 percent of whom take at least one pill a day. While Republicans haven't come up with an official alternative yet, early indications are that, egged on by pharmaceutical companies who fear federal regulation will reduce their profits, they will counter with a plan to cover drug costs for the poor only. Democrats hope this difference will allow them to recapture a large bloc of elderly voters who are increasingly pulling the elephant lever in the voting booth. That's an important group to reach, considering polls currently show them favoring George W. Bush over Al Gore by 20 to 30 points.