Where do over two million union members go when they retire? The AFL-CIO has an answer: the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA). The concept driving this organization is that retired trade unionists continue their contribution to society through “lifelong participation in their unions and in their community, political and civic organizations.” The ARA comes just in time, too, since George W. Bush has stepped up the attack on working families and retirees.

Medicare coverage of prescription drugs was the first demand adopted by the ARA’s founding convention in Washington, D.C., Sept. 3-5. A dramatic display of 400,000 petitions for Medicare coverage of prescription drugs was stacked high on the convention’s platform. The next day, 800 convention delegates protested the high price of medicine at the drug company association’s headquarters. They carried signs and wore huge buttons saying “Drug companies make me sick.”

Why is the prescription drug issue ARA’s first priority? Although many union retirees already have coverage for medicine, everyone has family members or friends without coverage who collectively must spend $1.6 trillion on medicine during this decade, according to the ARA. Also, many employers are cutting back or dropping their prescription drug plans. On a personal note, I was just given a new prescription for which Walgreen’s price was $20 for one pill.

Growing popular support for prescription drug benefits has made the issue a hot political item, with even George Bush saying he supports the demand. However, his plan is similar to that adopted by the House of Representatives that gives HMOs and insurance companies total control of the plan. Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) told ARA delegates that bill “will kill every single corporate pension plan/health care system that provides prescription pharmaceuticals.”

On a related front, ARA is also demanding federal action to bring pharmaceutical prices under control, warning that the continued skyrocketing price of drugs threatens any prescription drug plan.

In addition to prescription drugs, ARA calls for improving Medicare to provide affordable long-term care, dental care, vision and hearing aids and extended preventive services. Delegates summed up the ARA position on these matters when they said, “The Alliance for Retired Americans supports a national health system providing comprehensive care to all as a matter of right.”

Pointing to the fact that two-thirds of older Americans rely on Social Security for half or more of their income, the convention adopted a strongly-worded resolution condemning the administration’s plans to “modernize” the program by allowing all or part of Social Security taxes to be invested in “individual retirement accounts” – both terms meant to hide efforts by the Bush administration to privatize Social Security. A separate resolution on “Pension Protection” demanded pension plan reforms.

The ARA calls for raising or ending the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security, which would go far in preventing any future shortfall. Other demands include increasing benefits for single women and raising the monthly Social Security minimum to at least 100 percent of the poverty level, adjusting cost of living increases to reflect true costs for senior citizens and those with disabilities. ARA went on record opposing “any increase in the early retirement age or any further increase in the normal retirement age.”

The ARA says the national housing crisis is especially severe for older Americans and is made worse by cutbacks in federal spending for subsidized housing with supportive services. Only 5,200 of these units, which allow older people to remain independent rather than going to nursing homes, have been built in recent years. The ARA is calling for construction of 60,000 of these units a year as a start toward meeting the needs of the 1.5 million seniors who are ill-housed.

The author can be reached at Bealumpkin@aol.com

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