Meeting with local seniors, Cardin assails Medicare bill

Lawmaker says changes are harmful to patients

December 14, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA — With the ink barely dry on the 800-page Medicare bill signed by President Bush on Monday, Maryland Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin is campaigning hard among seniors to press for changes before a contested prescription drug benefit takes effect in 2006.

"Clearly there is no support for the bill," Cardin said after a visit to the 50+ Center in the east Columbia library Friday - one of nine such lecture-and-question sessions that he scheduled through Wednesday in his far-flung 3rd District, which stretches from Towson to Annapolis, Glen Burnie to Fullerton.

"What is unclear is whether seniors feel they're affected by the bill," he said.

Cardin is trying to convince them that everyone is affected - negatively.

Like other Democrats who opposed the largely Republican-supported changes to the Medicare law, he wants to make it a campaign issue next year, and force Congress to make changes in 2005. He told seniors in Columbia and in Maryland City in Anne Arundel County on Thursday that he plans to introduce a bill proposing changes Jan. 20, the day Congress reconvenes after the holiday recess.

Maryland Republicans fired back, accusing the liberal Democrat of being a "Scrooge" for voting against the bill and saying in a statement that his tour is "a slap in the face" to Maryland seniors.

But neither that nor the support for the law by the 35 million-member AARP softened his criticism.

Cardin said the bill affects every senior and contains no government-guaranteed benefit.

Worse, Cardin said, is that the bill has inadequate prescription coverage, prohibits federal officials from negotiating for better drug prices, will cause 2.7 million retirees with private drug plans to lose coverage, spends $14 billion in tax dollars to subsidize higher-cost private plans, puts a limit on general revenue use that will cause higher taxes or lower benefits, will undermine traditional Medicare and cuts $1 billion a year for cancer care.

"What we didn't do is bring down the cost of prescription medicines," he told a group of about 15 seniors gathered Thursday in a rented room at the Resurrection of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church on Brock Bridge Road. He delivered the same message Friday in the east Columbia library.

The kicker to his multimedia pitch is a slide noting that while Congress authorized spending $400 million over 10 years on the prescription drug plan, the Bush administration's tax cuts are worth $1.8 billion - more than four times as much.

"Do you want tax cuts or a good Medicare program?" he asked, criticizing the leadership of the private senior advocacy group AARP for supporting what he thinks is a bad bill.

"I read we want to buy flu vaccine from England, but they say [lower-priced] Canadian drugs aren't safe. I don't see Canadians falling on the ground from bad drugs," said Michael Ross, 66, a Maryland City resident.

Forbidding some federal officials to bargain for lower drug prices appeared to bother the seniors the most.

Whenever a single-payer government health program is discussed, opponents cry it's socialism, said Judy Beris, 64, at the Columbia meeting.

"This is socialism for drug companies and the insurance companies," she complained, adding that "this is opposite capitalist ideology."

Robert Brunner, 81, of Columbia asked whether Cardin thought the intent of the new law is to shift the costs of medical care to seniors and to eventually "get rid of Medicare altogether."

Cardin agreed, saying that "ultimately, they want to give you a check and tell you to go out and buy insurance."

Nancy Rivers, 66, quickly labeled that concept "socialism for the rich."

Cardin also attacked AARP's newspaper ads supporting the law, contending that they were "unforgivable" because they misstated facts. An AARP spokesman said about 15,000 of the group's members have resigned their memberships over the issue.

Mike Naylor, AARP's national director of advocacy, denied in a phone interview that the group's ads were misleading, saying the law is so complicated that "reasonable people can disagree over its merits."

Enough objectionable provisions in the House bill were removed or watered down that the AARP was "convinced there's more good than bad," Naylor said. For example, he said that while the law prohibits some officials from negotiating lower drug prices, that doesn't mean no government agency can do that. There is time to make changes to parts of the law that are found to be most objectionable, he said.

Bill Davis, 76, of Odenton went to the Maryland City meeting on behalf of the Republican Party, armed with printed sheets attacking Cardin for voting against the bill, which passed in the House on Nov. 22 on a 220-215 vote.

State Republican Party Executive Director Eric Sutton said in the statement that Cardin chose "politics as usual" over providing drug benefits to seniors.

"Congressman Cardin chose petty partisan politics in voting `no' instead of voting `yes' on legislation preventing our seniors from having to choose between food and prescription drugs," Sutton said.

Despite all the criticism and the efforts to explain the bill, several seniors at both meetings said they had one major reaction - bewilderment.

"I think it's very confusing," said Frances Flannery, 70, at the Columbia session. "I just don't see any benefits to it."

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