PhRMA, the drug company trade association, declined to comment on the discount card idea, although the group supports leaving the prescription drug question largely to the marketplace.
In fact, the Bush administration envisions a competitive system with discount plans vying for seniors' business. But it's not clear what beneficiaries would be getting if they sign up.
"This might be a good thing. It's just not the same as insurance," Tricia Neuman, ScD, a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, tells WebMD. Newman says the proposal coming on the eve of Bush's Medicare reform announcement could actually muddy the waters.
"It throws out a whole new idea that may or may not be workable," says Neuman. "It sounds like you're getting something you're not. They're not extracting a co-pay from you," but, she says, there could be other hidden charges.
On Thursday, the president is expected to recommend basic principles for Medicare reform that would shore up the program financially and add a universal prescription drug benefit. However, a big battle is expected over what the pumped-up program will cost and how much it will rely on managed care.
Capitol Hill is also tackling the broad issue of prescription drugs. On Wednesday, the House passed a measure that would make it legal for Americans to buy mail order drugs made in the U.S. from overseas. That was over the strenuous objections of the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry, which believe the move could flood the country with counterfeit or contaminated drugs.
A broader law was passed last year that would have allowed reimportation by pharmacies, but it was never implemented because of safety concerns. Still, U.S. consumers have been eager to buy drugs from abroad where price controls keep costs down dramatically.
A similar bill is under consideration in the Senate, although Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson came out Tuesday against drug reimportation as too risky and not cost-effective.