Adecisive battle over the future of Medicare will begin soon, when the House-Senate conference committee charged with working out the differences between the Senate and House bills on Medicare sends its report to both houses of Congress. Although timing is still uncertain and details had not been released at the time this was written, it’s clear that we’ll have to move quickly if we are to beat back this latest attack on Medicare.
The House and Senate passed competing Medicare bills on June 27, the House by a vote of 216-215 and the Senate by 76-21.
According to the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), the deal being brokered by the conference committee has several major shortcomings. The most important of these is the requirement that Medicare compete directly with private health plans beginning in 2010 – a thinly disguised Trojan horse that will inevitably lead to privatization. The deal also adds a means test to the Part B premium that will force higher income seniors to pay more for coverage, thus undermining the universal nature of the program. The ARA says it endangers employer-provided health benefits by failing to provide sufficient incentives such as tax credits or subsidies. The measure includes a coverage gap that would force beneficiaries whose drug costs exceed $2,200 a year to pay out-of-pocket for drug costs between $2,201 and approximately $5,000.
These provisions prompted key Democrats in the Senate to release a letter to George W. Bush in which they warned: a “partisan conference report that jeopardizes Medicare and does not provide meaningful assistance to the elderly and disabled should not, and will not, pass.” The letter, signed by a bipartisan group of 41 senators – 39 of the Senate’s 48 Democrats, James Jeffords, independent of Vermont, and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) – outlines important issues that, it says, “must be resolved for the legislation to merit bipartisan support.”
Although nine Democrats did not sign the letter, the failure of John Breaux of Louisiana and Max Baucus of Montana, both members of the conference committee, to sign is particularly troublesome. The two are the only Democrats – there are seven Democrats among the conferees – who are allowed to participate in meetings of the committee. California GOP Congressman Bill Thomas, who chairs the committee, has refused to include the other five Democrats because, he says, he is “only interested in working with people who are willing to compromise.”
Breaux has been more than willing to “compromise” when it comes to privatizing Medicare. In 1998, when he was a member of a committee established to “look at” Medicare, he emerged as the champion of issuing vouchers to Medicare recipients and then leaving them “free” to use the vouchers to buy coverage on the open market.
While the question of prescription drugs under Medicare highlighted the congressional debate in June, the issue no longer occupies center stage. Fundamentally, Democrats have accepted the structure of the prescription drug program contained in the House bill: in addition to the requirement that beneficiaries shoulder all costs between $2,201 and $5,000, beneficiaries will have to pay premiums averaging $35 per month and an annual deductible of $275 for drug coverage.
In his Oct. 24 Legislative Alert, George Kourpias, president of ARA, noted a recent New York Times/CBS poll that found older voters to be less than enthralled with the job that George W. Bush is doing. The poll found that Bush’s overall approval rating among 65-and-older voters slipped from 63 percent in May to 44 percent in July, and then to 41 percent in October, the lowest among any age group.
Kourpias also warned of the need for prompt action once a final agreement is announced. “Seniors will still have time to let their elected representatives know they disapprove of the bill. But we will have to act quickly to make sure that every member of Congress gets our message before any final bill comes to the floor for a vote,” the former president of the Machinists Union said. “We already know that President George W. Bush will sign any bill enacted by Congress no matter how bad it is. So, our job as activists is to keep the pressure on all members of Congress but especially those who depend on the senior vote for reelection.”
Medicare has proven itself a highly successful universal social benefit. One reason it works is that it’s out of the hands of profit-driven corporate interests. We should fight to expand its coverage, and reject any moves to undermine and privatize it.
Fred Gaboury is a member of the Editorial Board of the People’s Weekly World. He can be reached at email@example.com