WASHINGTON, D.C. – It rained and it poured, but still 1,000 retirees came out on Capitol Hill, Sept. 4, to stop the privatization of Medicare. Some were in wheel chairs, still they bravely held up their signs in the rain to demand affordable medicines. The rally was the highlight of the Legislative Conference of Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), held Sept. 3-5 in Washington, D.C.

“No bill is better than a bad bill!” the retirees roared. The shouts were loud enough for their senators and congressmen to get the message: “Vote No on HR-1 and SB-1, or any similar bill that that comes out of the Senate-House Conference.” After the rally, demonstrators delivered this message personally to their senators and representatives. George Kourpias, ARA president, voiced their feelings: “Older Americans support Medicare. We just want prescription drug coverage – not the dismemberment of Medicare.”

Of the two bills, the ARA considers HR-1, the House version, the worse. HR-1 requires total privatization of Medicare by 2010. Benefits, such as they are, do not start until 2006, two years after the crucial 2004 presidential election. Only after 2006 would older Americans learn that the plan is very expensive and that insurance companies, not Medicare, would control the benefit.

Even worse, these bills actually prohibit Medicare from trying to lower the price of medicines. The drug companies would be free to continue to raise prices at will. Under these bills, retirees who have drug coverage from their former job may lose coverage.

This cynical plan counts on fooling retirees. But older Americans are finding out that the Bush bill is a scam. A new poll shows that 76 percent think the Bush bills “don’t do enough to help senior citizens,” reported ARA Executive Director Edward Coyle. A Harris poll shows that by 2 to 1, retirees want to scrap the Bush bills and start over. Coyle said that the ARA will continue to lead the fight for a real drug plan, under Medicare, that is affordable, controls prices and is voluntary.

The conference honored militant activists arrested in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. They were arrested as they stepped out of the parking lot on the way to visiting their senators on the prescription drug issue. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) refused to meet with the retirees but did not escape. They left him a clear message in his Washington office: “Vote NO on the sham Bush bill!” Other militant actions were reported from Cleveland and Philadelphia. It was noted with pride that every Democratic candidate for president felt pressure to support Health Care for All plans.

Strategy to win the 2004 elections was the focus of the union and state caucus meetings. In addition to the health care and Social Security issue, every guest speaker opposed the Bush perpetual war policy and the administration’s attack on civil liberties. These included Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice-president, AFL-CIO; Andy Stern, SEIU president; Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), candidates for U.S. President; and Helen Thomas, former White House correspondent.

The author can be reached at bealumpkin@aol.com