WASHINGTON – Nearly 1,000 senior citizens rallied on Capitol Hill June 25 and blew plastic whistles to show their anger at sham prescription drug bills that benefit drug companies and George W. Bush’s election while opening the door to privatizing Medicare.

“I wish this was a celebration. Instead it is a protest,” said George Kourpias, president of the Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA). “Both the Senate and House are taking every step to privatize Medicare. We are here to blow the whistle on this sham legislation.”

The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, UNITE, and the United Steelworkers bused in retirees from Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York for the rally in Upper Senate Park. The African American, Latino and white workers, many wearing their union tee shirts and caps, held placards that read, “Don’t Privatize Medicare.” One protester held a mock tombstone with the epitaph, “R.I.P., Grandma Got Run Over by GOP.”

ARA secretary-treasurer Ruben Burks said, “We disagree with those who say a bad bill is better than no bill. We deserve better.” He warned that four million retired workers stand to lose employer prescription drug plans if either the Grassley-Baucus bill in the Senate or the House Republican plan is approved. Seniors would be forced to choose a private drug benefit plan with high co-payments and riddled with loopholes and donut holes.

Anne Marie Mayer, a retired secretary from New York, said she and her husband scrape by on an annual income of $13,000. Much of the cost of $5,000 in prescription drugs that keep them alive is covered by a New York state drug plan. “But if the Grassley-Baucus plan is passed, my co-pay would be over $4,000 per year,” she said. “That is unacceptable. We need a single-payer prescription drug plan through Medicare.”

Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told the crowd that the Medicare Administrator earns a $130,000 salary to manage a program that benefits 40 million people. But Norman Payson, CEO of Oxford Health Plans, raked off $76 million in salary and stock options last year. That same year, Oxford dropped Medicare+Choice coverage for thousands of seniors in New York state. “Privatizing Medicare is an excellent way to waste taxpayer dollars,” Brown said. “Extravagant executive pay is only one reason. We have sat through hearing after hearing listening to the Republicans lie about Medicare. They have tried every trick in the book to dismantle it.”

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, accused “radical extremist” Republicans of “handing out poison-laced kool aid to destroy Medicare. Stand up and blow the whistle on these scoundrels who are trying to takeaway our benefits.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said he has received 700 calls so far this week from constituents opposed to the prescription drug bills and only four in favor. “Unfortunately, the Republicans have the votes to ram their drug bill through and Bush will sign it,” he said. “But we will have the last say because there is an election coming up next year.”

AFSCME President Gerry McEntee echoed that defiance, vowing to turn out a huge vote next year “to send George W. Bush back to the Texas Rangers.” Pedro Rodriguez, executive vice president of the ARA told the World, “The only aim of these bills is to reelect George W. Bush. There is no public treasury that can satisfy drug company greed. This is a straight-out effort to privatize Medicare.”

He criticized Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) for endorsing the Grassley-Baucus bill. “Kennedy has gone south on this, caving in to the White House.” On the other hand, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a candidate for president, calls for “Medicare for everyone.” Said Rodriguez, “I think that is a slogan we can all support. Medicare for all conveys what needs to happen.”

George Edwards, an executive board member of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees said, “We blew the whistle on them but unfortunately too many of these rightwing Republicans are deaf. Health care and jobs are going to be the overriding issues in the 2004 elections. The war on Iraq is already becoming a negative for Bush. My union is exerting all its efforts to get Bush out of the White House.”

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