Caught by surprise by President Donald Trump’s promise to deliver drug-discount cards to seniors, health officials are scrambling to get the nearly $8 billion plan done by Election Day, according to five officials and draft documents obtained by POLITICO.
The taxpayer-funded plan, which was only announced two weeks ago and is being justified inside the White House and the health department as a test of the Medicare program, is being driven by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma and White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, the officials said. The administration is seeking to finalize the plan as soon as Friday and send letters to 39 million Medicare beneficiaries next week, informing seniors of Trump’s new effort to lower their drug costs, although many seniors would not receive the actual cards until after the election.
The $200 cards — which would resemble credit cards, would need to be used at pharmacies and could be branded with a reference to Trump himself — would be paid for by tapping Medicare’s trust fund.
“The goal is to begin the test by distributing cards starting in October 2020,” according to a draft proposal circulated within the White House last week and obtained by POLITICO.
Career civil servants have raised concerns about the hasty plan and whether it is politically motivated, particularly after Verma pushed Medicare officials to finalize the plan before the Nov. 3 election, said two officials.
The plan to lower seniors’ drug costs comes as administration officials grapple with Trump’s falling support among older Americans, a significant threat to his re-election. Trump is currently lagging challenger Joe Biden by as much as 27 points in recent polls among Americans ages 65 and older, a major reversal from the 2016 campaign, with seniors now voicing concerns about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his chaotic leadership style.
“This has nothing to do with politics. It’s good policy and demonstrates the president is continuing to deliver on his promises to our nation’s seniors,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson. The White House did not make Meadows available for an interview.
CMS did not make Verma available for interviews and declined comment.
Democrats have dismissed the cards as a “gimmick” that will do little to achieve Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge of lowering drug prices.
“It’s a shameless stunt that steals billions from Medicare in order to fund a legally dubious scheme that’s clearly intended to benefit President Trump’s campaign right before Election Day,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee.
The administration previously ordered that Trump’s name appear on millions of stimulus checks sent out by the IRS this spring, which Democrats have alleged was an effort for the president to take credit for a congressional relief package.
Trump abruptly announced the drug-discount cards on Sept. 24, a last-minute decision that surprised even some of his own