WASHINGTON – In a treacherous sellout of 41 million senior citizens, the Republican-controlled House and Senate narrowly approved George W. Bush’s prescription drug scam that fattens HMO and drug company profits while opening the door to Medicare privatization.

The meager and confusing drug benefit, with a gaping doughnut hole in the middle, is offered only to those seniors who leave traditional Medicare and join a for-profit HMO, a form of legislative blackmail.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), at a Capitol Hill news conference, denounced the bill, approved by the Senate 54-44, as “an enormous transfer of wealth from seniors to HMOs and pharmaceuticals.” She predicted an angry backlash against the sellout in the 2004 elections.

“Shame on Congress for opening the door to privatize Medicare,” declared a statement by the Alliance for Retired Americans, “for protecting the profits of the pharmaceutical and insurance industries over the needs of older Americans.” The ARA vowed to keep fighting “until we get a decent bill” providing prescription drugs under Medicare.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney called it “highway robbery” that will strip 3 million retirees of existing benefits while forcing them to rely on the “skimpy yet expensive” drug benefits in the bill. The legislation “will engineer massive and radical structural changes in Medicare” aimed at forcing seniors into privatized care, he charged.

During Senate debate, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) branded the measure “a witch’s brew” that embodies the GOP’s “right-wing ideological fantasies” and “private sector worship.” Medicare was established 38 years ago, he said, to guarantee medical care for people like his father, a coal miner afflicted with black lung, who had to rely on charity medical care until Medicare was enacted in 1965.

The government will subsidize HMOs to the tune of $1,900 more per person than regular Medicare – a 26 percent advantage, creating a $12 billion “slush fund” for HMOs, Harkin said. “That’s not competition, that’s corporate welfare,” he said. The bill embraces former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s plan to “let Medicare wither on the vine,” Harkin charged.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) displayed a chart comparing costs for a list of prescription drugs. Nevacor, for example, an anti-cholesterol medication, costs $4 per pill over the counter but only 26 cents per pill through the Veterans Administration, which bargains with drug manufacturers on behalf of millions of veterans – similar to the Canadian government which negotiates drug prices a third or half the price paid in the United States.

“But under this legislation, Medicare will be forbidden from negotiating such low prices for its recipients,” Lautenberg said. Seniors will be forced to pay on average $810 per year in deductibles and co-pays before deriving a penny from the drug plan. After drug costs reach $2,250, a recipient will get nothing until drug bills reach $3,600 in a year, the so-called “doughnut.” The legislation imposes a means test for the first time, undermining Medicare’s universality, which is one of its strongest pillars.

Bush bullied and cajoled to get the bill through as part of his drive for a second term. Destroying Medicare and forcing seniors into private HMOs is a centerpiece of Bush’s hidden agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), millionaire heir to the HCA/Columbia Health Care Corp., will reap millions from the plan.

Hank McKinnell, Pfizer chairman and CEO, a “Ranger” who has pledged to raise $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign, is also on the bill’s gravy train. Charles Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, hailed the bill for providing “sufficient funds” to the hospitals he lobbies for. He is a Bush-Cheney “Pioneer” who has pledged $100,000 to their re-election campaign. M. Keith Weickel, chief operating officer of HCR Manor Care, a chain of more than 500 nursing homes, is another Bush “Pioneer” who stands to profit from the legislation.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said he was “stunned” that the Republicans did not permit a single House Democrat to participate in the House-Senate conference where the final version of the 675-page bill was drafted.

Republican leaders steamrollered the bill through the House in the dead of night by a 220-215 vote. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likened the strong-arm tactics to the stealing of the 2000 presidential election, saying the GOP “stole it by hook and crook.”

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) planned to filibuster but was blocked when the Senate voted 71-29, with 22 Democrats joining 47 Republicans, for a motion to end debate.

The American Association of Retired Persons, which calls itself the nation’s largest retiree organization, endorsed the bill. The group derives 60 percent of its revenues from insurance-related ventures. “AARP would stand to gain tens of millions of dollars each year in new income under the Republican Medicare bill,” charged Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

While the Medicare bill slipped through, a filibuster blocked an energy bill packed with $110 billion in giveaways to Bush-Cheney oil and gas cronies.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.