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White House's drug-discount-card plan faces election-season trouble

The whole point of the White House's scheme was to deliver the drug-discount cards before Election Day. That's apparently not going to happen.
Image: A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine as she fills a prescription.
A pharmacy employee dumps pills into a pill counting machine.Lucas Jackson / Reuters, file

While rolling out a faux health care plan three weeks ago, Donald Trump boasted that he'd soon send $200 drug-discount cards to 33 million Medicare beneficiaries. "Nobody has seen this before," the president said. "These cards are incredible."

Even by 2020 standards, it was a brazen move. The White House's plan is to move billions of dollars out of Medicare trust funds, without congressional approval, using taxpayer funds -- in a legally dubious way -- as part of an unabashed election-season scheme. Polls show Trump losing his advantage among seniors, so his team got to work on a plan in which the administration would effectively send them Trump-branded, taxpayer-financed gift cards ahead of Election Day.

Making matters just a little worse, the scheme was hatched in a decidedly post-policy way. Politico reported that administration officials weren't notified in advance that the president would promise to send seniors these cards: "Trump and his advisers were searching for proposals to tout as health care accomplishments and latched onto the drug-discount cards just hours before the president's scheduled address, leaving the health department scrambling to justify the idea."

The article quoted one HHS official saying, "It's turning into this last-minute, thrown-together thing" -- which necessarily helped bolster allegations that the administration's scheme was a corrupt gambit to help Trump's re-election bid.

But there's a problem with "thrown-together" policies that haven't been properly planned: they often don't quite work. The Wall Street Journal reported overnight:

President Trump's plan to send 33 million Medicare beneficiaries a card that can be used to help pay for as much as $200 in prescription drug costs won't be completed until after the election, according to a person familiar with the plan. The cards will be mailed in phases, with some likely going out later in October but most not until after the Nov. 3 presidential election, the person said.

The whole point of the endeavor was to deliver the money before Election Day, but because Team Trump doesn't take governing or policymaking seriously, that's apparently not going to happen.

That said, there is a catch. From the WSJ report: "The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is spending an estimated $20 million for administrative costs to print and send letters to Medicare beneficiaries informing them that they will be getting cards."

In other words, the administration may not be able to deliver the drug-discount cards ahead of Election Day, but it can deliver letters to seniors -- using tens of millions of taxpayer dollars -- letting Medicare beneficiaries know that Trump's plan has been hatched.

Will that have the intended political benefit? The White House clearly hopes so.