Democratic candidates scold AARP

Group that represents 35 million U.S. elderly backs GOP Medicare bill

November 19, 2003|By Eric Slater | Eric Slater,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BEDFORD, N.H. - Democratic presidential hopefuls found themselves in the odd position yesterday of criticizing the AARP, at a forum sponsored by the seniors' group, for backing proposed changes to Medicare. They seemed delighted, however, when hundreds of AARP members cheered in agreement.

The Republican-sponsored $400 billion, 10-year proposal to add prescription drug coverage would weaken the federal program for seniors while enriching insurers and drug companies, Democrats charged.

This week the seniors' national lobbying organization, previously known as the American Association of Retired Persons, endorsed the legislation and announced it would spend $7 million to drum up the votes needed to pass it in Congress.

"This is a bad bill," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri told a cheering crowd of about 800. "What's wrong with AARP coming out in support of this bill is that they're falling into the trap set by the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies."

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina argued that the bill "takes billions of dollars that could be used to improve benefits for seniors and instead pumps those billions into big HMOs." And Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said he wished "AARP was spending its $7 million telling Americans what is wrong with this bill."

Of the six Democrats who attended the forum, only Connecticut Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman did not outright criticize the legislation and AARP's backing, saying he wanted "to take a few days" to learn more about it.

The bill, announced over the weekend, would create a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients beginning in 2006 and would offer incentives for private insurers to compete with government to offer health-care coverage for the elderly.

Democrats have long sought to provide prescription benefits, but most don't want parts of Medicare privatized, nor do they want to see President Bush achieve a major legislative victory in an election year.

And the hopefuls do not relish the idea of battling the AARP - a group with 35 million members and considerable power in Washington.

When a television spot from the ad campaign was played at the Wayfarer Inn Convention Center, showing seniors praising the plan, members of the audience booed.

Although AARP members at the forum offered several reasons for their skepticism, the primary ones were privatization and that the bill was crafted by Republicans, with little input from Democrats.

"I don't know all about it, but I can't trust big companies and Republicans when it comes to Medicare or Social Security or things like that," said Rose Haley, 70, a registered Democrat. Whether other AARP members will be similarly skeptical is unclear.

"I'm not surprised at the response of the AARP here, but that's not the response you're going to get from the AARP in Washington, D.C.," said Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "The AARP is an incredibly effective group, and one reason is that they understand political dynamics. They know they have to work with the Republican leadership to get anything done."

Three Democratic hopefuls did not attend the forum: the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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