The Bush prescription: Cut food stamps

More bad news about that prescription drug plan: Seniors who use it may lose their food stamps.

Published May 9, 2005 12:08PM (EDT)

That prescription drug benefit plan the Bush administration pushed through Congress just keeps getting better and better. You remember the plan. It's the one that prohibits Medicare from using its purchasing power to drive down the cost of drugs, the one that the Bush administration swore up and down would cost no more than $400 billion over 10 years when the administration knew all along that the real price tag was something like $732 billion.

You may also remember that, last June, a small furor erupted when a constituent told then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle that the government was going to take away some of her food stamps if she opted into the plan. The Bush administration assured Daschle that the concern was unfounded . Medicare chief Mark McClellan told Daschle: "New benefits . . . cannot take away any existing federal benefits." Bush's Department of Agriculture, which runs the food stamp program, followed up with a memorandum to its regional directors saying that it would ensure that "no food stamp applicant or participant who uses the drug discount card will lose food stamp benefits."

It turns out that wasn't, you know, "true."

As the New York Times reported over the weekend, some seniors who take advantage of the prescription drug plan will in fact see some of their savings offset by a cut in the food stamps they receive. The thinking: If seniors are spending less on drugs, then they surely they have more to spend on food. As the Times reported, the Bush administration says a hypothetical Mrs. Smith might see her drug costs drop from $147 to $105 a month. But in recognition of this windfall, the government would take away $17 of her $27 a month in food stamps. The Bush administration says that Mrs. Smith still comes out ahead because "she still has $25 more cash in her pocket - $42 medical savings, less the $17 decrease in food stamps."

The logic isn't crazy, just cold-hearted. And we're guessing it's not what Congress had in mind when it approved the plan in the first place. In fact, we don't have to guess. The Medicare Modernization Act specifically provides that discounts and subsidies seniors receive through the prescrition drug program shall not be treated as benefits or otherwise taken into account in determining an individuals eligibility for, or the amount of benefits under, any other federal program.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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