Fight on Medicare bill intensifies as vote nears

Democrats, union retirees say seniors lose out

GOP, AARP promote subsidies

November 20, 2003|By Shannon McMahon | Shannon McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats and about 300 union retirees gathered in a Senate office building yesterday to condemn proposed Medicare legislation that they say will destroy the program and benefit pharmaceutical and insurance companies more than seniors.

"We're going to do everything we can to stop it," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, describing the bill as "a lemon."

Proponents say the Medicare bill would offer hefty subsidies for low-income seniors, who would not have to pay premiums or deductibles, and would provide strong prescription drug benefits to the nation's 40 million senior citizens.

Critics contend that using private companies to administer prescription drug benefits is the first step toward Medicare's privatization.

AARP members

A dozen AARP members gathered outside the organization's Washington headquarters to protest the decision of the large seniors' group to support the Republican Medicare proposal. Some tore up or tried to burn their membership cards.

"I always felt like they were for us," said Queenita Gaskins, 67. "I cannot believe that they want us to go with something that isn't for seniors."

Gaskins criticized what she said was the bill's skimpy coverage of drug costs; the package would offer no coverage, for example, for costs between $2,200 and $3,600.

"This bill is terrible, just terrible," added Evelyn James, 85, as she stood outside the AARP building in pouring rain. "This offers nothing for seniors and will diminish our health services."

But Mike Naylor, director of advocacy for AARP, said the group's support was justified, and he warned against holding out for a perfect bill.

"We would prefer that there be more money in the bill," he acknowledged, but "the choice is between nothing and this bill, which is imperfect but better than what we have now."

Jockeying continues

Legislative jockeying continued on the bill, which is tentatively scheduled to go to the House floor tomorrow, with the Senate taking it up shortly thereafter. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, sought to rally Democrats for a vote against the bill, while Republicans predicted that the Democrats would pay a political price for opposing it.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich addressed House Republicans in a closed-door session, urging conservatives to support the GOP proposal. Some conservatives have expressed dismay at the cost of the $400 billion drug program, and others have said it fails to provide enough competition to Medicare from private insurers.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, one of the bill's chief backers, promoted provisions that he said would promote rural health care.

"Today we're moving closer than ever to the most dramatic improvement in rural health care delivery that Congress has ever considered," the Iowa Republican said. "Rural America cannot afford to have us walk away from this package by voting against the overall bill."

AFL-CIO ads

Beginning tomorrow, the AFL-CIO plans to run ads against the plan and counter the AARP's advertising effort, although the AFL-CIO's $1 million expenditure pales in comparison with the AARP's $7 million campaign.

"We've been all over it," said AFL-CIO spokeswoman Suzanne Ffolkes.

Republicans predicted the measure would pass, but Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and other opponents made it clear they are not giving up.

"Republicans and their friends in the HMOs and the drug companies want to hijack this bill," Kennedy told a cheering audience at the Senate rally. "We're here to say no."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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