US President George W. Bush on Monday signed a US$400 billion overhaul of the Medicare old-age health system that adds prescription drug coverage, but Democrats charged that seniors are being shortchanged and drug companies rewarded.
"Our government is finally bringing prescription drug coverage to the seniors of America," Bush said, as he signed the legislation he hopes will draw more senior citizens into the Republican camp for his re-election campaign next year.
Democrats running for president and in Congress said the overhaul shortchanges seniors and rewards drug companies.
They vowed new efforts to expand Medicare and make it an issue in next year's national elections.
"We're going to win this battle. We're going to take back our Medicare," Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said. Kennedy and Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, yesterday planned to introduce proposed revisions for next year.
The Medicare overhaul adds a prescription drug benefit -- starting in 2006 -- for the 40 million Medicare recipients. Bush said drug costs will fall "roughly in half" for participants now without drug coverage.
The bill encourages a bigger role for private health insurers -- which Democrats warned could push seniors into health maintenance organizations.
Democrats opposed provisions allowing a gap in coverage of drug costs and prohibiting the government from negotiating prices with drug makers. They warned the bill could trigger cuts in state benefits for the poor and elimination of employer retiree benefits.
They also want to allow imports of lower-priced drugs from Canada.
The White House defended, as "consumer protection," a provision that would prohibit Medicare participants from buying supplemental insurance to cover gaps in coverage.
The overhaul was supported by major senior citizens' organizations, including the powerful AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons. Individual AARP members have protested its stance and the group has said it will seek to expand benefits.
Some conservative groups have also criticized the bill.