(CNSNews.com) - How can voters sort through the merits of the presidential candidates' prescription drug benefit plans? Republican George W Bush and Democrat Al Gore spent much time sparring on the subject during Tuesday night's debate.
Two health policy experts were asked to identify the truth and fiction contained in the candidates' debate statements.
Democrat Al Gore claimed that under his plan, all seniors would get prescription drugs under Medicare.
Tom Miller, director of health policy studies for the libertarian Cato Institute, says that's true, but only in the short run.
"Gore is providing an across-the-board benefit, in a fixed structure, that you can touch and smell and sniff," said Miller. "That's all there in the first year. And you'll be able to get all the drugs you want for a couple years [with no deductible]," he explained.
"In the early going, when you're saying, 'look at this carrot in front of your nose, just kind of jump for it and take a bite,' in that very narrow horizon, technically, he has something to offer," said Miller.
"What Gore gets to say is, 'What I'm all about is taking money from someone else and giving it to you, a senior. Aren't you happy about that?' There's a small amount of mileage politically for it," Miller said.
But Miller says Gore's statement about covering all seniors is misleading when applied to the third year of his plan and beyond.
"There are consequences to what he's doing that he can't sustain," he continued. "What [Medicare] would need to do is keep paying low prices for old drugs [because] there won't be any new drugs. Or you have to, in effect, reallocate the burden to somebody else to pay for it, or squeeze other types of Medicare benefits," said Miller.
Marilyn Moon, a senior fellow and health care expert with the left-of-center Urban Institute, was critical of Bush's Tuesday evening claims.
Bush said during the debate that a senior making $25,000 a year would get immediate help under the Bush prescription drug plan, but Moon says that's not accurate.
"Gore was right that for the most part, the first stage of Mr. Bush's plan is mostly an income-limited plan," said Moon.
"The Bush plan is a two-stage plan," Moon explained. "The first stage is mostly for low income individuals, and it actually [cuts off aid to seniors making] a lot less than $25,000," she said. "It's $25,000 or below for a married couple," said Moon, making the real income limit less for individuals.
Moon said seniors with huge drug costs would benefit from the catastrophic coverage in the Bush plan.
"There is one piece of Bush's first plan that would potentially help some people," Moon pointed out. "That is that he would [impose] a $6,000 catastrophic cap, so if you spent $6,000 out-of-pocket, then the government would pick up the rest," she said.
But Moon said most seniors do not need that level of catastrophic coverage. "That's a teensy proportion of the population right now: One-and-a-half percent of Medicare beneficiaries," she said.
During the debate, Bush also claimed his plan would help seniors immediately.
Moon says that because the Bush plan relies on the states to administer the new drug benefit program, it's uncertain how long that would take to implement.
"These people would potentially get coverage, but the states would have a lot of options about how they would do that," said Moon. "We don't know how long it would take to go on line," she predicted.
But according to Tom Miller, Bush's plan isn't the only phased-in plan on the table. Miller said Gore was wrong in denying during the debate that his plan would take eight years to phase in.