President Donald Trump said Americans in the Medicare program for the elderly and disabled will be sent $200 discount cards for prescription drugs within weeks, potentially putting cash in their pockets ahead of his November re-election.
“Nobody’s seen this before. These cards are incredible,” Trump said Thursday in a speech outlining what he called an “America First Health Plan” in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The cards will be mailed out in coming weeks. I will always take care of our wonderful senior citizens.”
Trump did not explain in his speech what program or authority would allow the government to provide the cards. Assuming they are sent to 33 million Medicare beneficiaries, the figure Trump used, the cards would cost about $6.6 billion.
Money for the cards will be drawn from a demonstration program Medicare uses to test new payment systems and other projects, and the cost will be offset by future savings generated from new price cuts Trump has ordered for drugs bought by Medicare, according to a White House official. The cards can be used for prescription drugs co-pays, the official said, but didn’t elaborate.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services referred questions about the cards to the White House.
Trump is struggling to secure the votes of older Americans with less than six weeks before the election. Several recent polls indicate his re-election opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is tied or leading Trump among people 65 and older, a turnabout from 2016 when the president won the senior vote by a comfortable margin.
“Joe Biden won’t be doing this,” Trump said in his speech.
The White House has been negotiating with drug makers over an order Trump signed in August that would cut the U.S. prices of some medicines by tying them to prices paid in other Western countries with national health-care systems.
But the leading lobby group for the industry, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said last week it had rejected a request from the administration to provide discount cards to Medicare patients as part of the deal.
Trump issued the drug price order last week, after negotiations with the industry broke off, but it has not yet taken effect. It is not clear whether it will ever generate savings for the government or whether they would be enough to offset the cost of the drug discount cards.
Drug companies are not aware of Trump’s plans or where funding for the cards will come from, according to a person familiar with the industry’s negotiations with the White House.
Trump’s speech was intended to set forth a healthcare agenda for his second term, addressing a key vulnerability for the president in the election. After his remarks, he signed an executive order that calls on Congress to retain protections for sick people buying insurance – safeguards guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act, a law Trump’s administration is asking the Supreme Court to strike down.
The president has often promised he would produce a replacement for Obamacare, which guarantees insurers cannot deny coverage to sick people or charge them more. Just last week, the president said his plan is “ready.” But the order he signed essentially abandons the issue to Congress, suggesting he won’t offer his own plan before the election.
Democrats have ratcheted up criticism of Trump’s failure to develop a replacement policy for Obamacare since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday. The president’s opponents say that without the liberal icon, the court is much more likely to strike down Obamacare and leave millions of Americans without insurance or subject to being denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found by 20 points – 51%-31% – voters say Biden would better handle healthcare.
White House officials say some of the fears voiced by Democrats are overblown. The Supreme Court is not likely to immediately invalidate the Affordable Care Act or void existing insurance contracts and subsidies, leaving people uninsured or facing higher costs overnight, they say.
And Trump has said he would use a wind-down period as leverage to negotiate a better, less expensive restructuring of the health care system, though he has not described in any detail how he would improve on Obamacare or reduce the costs of its insurance policies.
Trump’s order purporting to protect people with pre-existing conditions will not apply to consumers who buy short-term insurance policies that last less than a year, according to the White House official. The Trump administration has promoted the plans as a cheaper alternative to Obamacare plans. But they are cheaper because companies offering them are allowed to exclude sick people and because the plans seldom cover as many services as Obamacare policies.