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WASHINGTON _ Starting Thursday, members of Congress will be besieged by three days of contradictory advice from older people on what to do with the Senate and House bills for Medicare prescription drug benefits.
The bills authorize different methods of subsidizing some drug purchases by Medicare beneficiaries, either through the traditional fee-for-service program or through a managed care plan such as a health maintenance organization.
The AARP, which includes 35 million members 50 or older, says both bills contain coverage gaps that fail to keep out-of-pocket costs low enough for middle-income recipients. It says the Senate version fails to do enough for low-income seniors and the House version is unfair to high-income seniors, varies in different parts of the country, and penalizes beneficiaries who refuse to switch from traditional Medicare to managed care plans.
Kill both bills, says the 2.7 million member, union-supported Alliance for Retired Americans, which is sponsoring a rally Thursday by more than 1,000 of its members on Capitol Hill.
"Obviously the House bill is worse than the Senate bill, but we don't support the Senate bill either," said Edward Coyle, executive director of the union-supported alliance of retirees. "Instead of protecting Medicare and passing it on to a new generation, the bills would make health care unaffordable and unavailable for most seniors and their families."
The alliance's rally comes during a training conference in Washington for more than 500 organizers who will be active in next year's campaigns. In the last month, some of them staged boisterous media events that led to arrests in or near the district offices of members of Congress.
The AARP has a more upbeat message: Fix the bills in the Senate-House conference committee that began meeting in July and then pass the compromise this year.
"Our members want a prescription drug benefit that covers everyone in Medicare, and they want it passed this year," said spokesman Steve Hahn of the AARP, which will hold a national call-in to Congress Friday and rallies in three cities Friday and Saturday. "But it shouldn't penalize those who want to stay in traditional Medicare, and it should give employers good reason to keep prescription-drug coverage for retirees on Medicare."
The alliance says neither bill meets its requirements for a drug benefit that is "affordable, universal, comprehensive and voluntary."
Amid a similar furor 15 years ago, Congress approved a limited benefit for prescription drugs that turned out to be so unpopular that Congress rushed to cancel the legislation the next year.
To this day, senior members of Congress recall the televised image of Dan Rostenkowski, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, running down a street to escape enraged, cane-waving seniors.
The AARP's East Coast rally on Friday will draw members from eight states to Capitol Hill, and a West Coast rally will draw Californians to Laguna Beach.
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"We're going to have a lot of people from Colorado calling and saying, 'Fix it, pass it, don't go backwards now that we've gotten this far,' " said Morie Kiusalaas, Colorado spokeswoman for the AARP.
"Our 2.6 million members in Florida break down into two groups, those who have prescriptions and those whose parents have prescriptions," said state AARP director Bentley Lipscomb. "Fix it and pass it _ that's amenable with most in both groups. But some of those who already have some kind of drug coverage don't share the urgency of those who have none at all."
Kathy Floyd, Georgia advocacy director for the AARP, said that a meeting scheduled for next week with Rep. Max Burns, R-Ga., will finish a monthlong series of 13 held by local AARP constituents with each member of the state's U.S. House delegation. She said, "We have folks in the Georgia delegation who definitely want to vote the right way, but they don't want to be on the chopping block for something that's not going to work out."
"We have people who are so strapped that you get to the point where you have to decide whether to buy groceries, buy your medicine, or stretch out your medicine by taking it every other day," said Judith Moss of Tarboro, N.C., a retired school librarian who will go to Friday's Capitol Hill rally on a bus chartered by the Tarboro and Rocky Mount chapters of the AARP. "I can't believe the people in Washington can't just fix that law and get it passed."
"If the legislation emerges looking much like the House bill, the question of whether to support it will be a tough call for the AARP, but I sure hope we do better than that," said Jerry Graham of Twinsburg, Ohio, state advocacy coordinator for AARP in Ohio. Graham's sister is in a nursing home and pays about $500 a month for medications. He said, "I just got off the phone with a Canadian pharmacy, where the guy just told me that (an American drug company) just pulled the plug _ told him they can get enough drugs for their Canadian customers, but not for Americans any more."
"Our members met in August with the member or with a knowledgeable aide in the office of just about everyone in the Texas delegation, including the senators," said George Keleman of Austin, the Texas advocacy and grassroots director for the AARP. "All of them understand the stakes, and know it's not just something they can set aside, because we want them to help us get something we can support"
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At AARP headquarters in Washington, Hahn said, "We will deliver about 100,000 petition signatures to the Senate and House leadership on Friday, while our members are calling them on the phone."
Scenes from Friday's rallies will be telecast via satellite to the 15,000 activists at the AARP's annual national meeting in Chicago. There, the AARP will start up a "countdown clock" on a prescription drug bill, measuring the number of minutes remaining for Congress to act before the end of 2003.
At a rally Saturday in Chicago, AARP leaders will "deputize" as many volunteers as possible to return to their homes and explain "the necessary fixes" to other older voters, Hahn said.
"Older people are the ones to whom the battle means the most, but our data doesn't suggest they understand the nuances and all the details," said Robert Leitman, group president for health care at Harris Interactive, which on Aug. 15 released results from an online survey of a nationwide sample of 2,215 adults.
Harris asked: "Some critics of the current proposals say they do not cover enough of the costs of drugs. Which (of three positions) do you think would be better?"
"Oppose this bill and fight for a more generous benefit, even if it is unlikely to pass any time soon," said 52 percent. But 21 percent said, "Pass the current proposals even if the benefits will still leave many seniors with big out-of-pocket costs." And 27 percent said they were "not sure."
Support was stronger among those who said they knew something about the proposals. In that group, though 51 percent opposed a less generous bill, 32 percent favored one, and only 17 percent weren't sure.
On the Web:
Alliance for Retired Americans: www.retiredamericans.org
Andrew Mollison's e-mail address is email@example.com
Cox News Service