WASHINGTON – Senior citizens, African American, Latino and white, packed the ornate Senate Caucus Room Nov. 19 and cheered as speakers blasted a prescription drug plan that provides meager drug benefits for some senior citizens while opening the door to the privatization of Medicare.

Standing behind a big banner that proclaimed, “Don’t Privatize Medicare,” New York’s Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton praised the protesters for traveling to the nation’s capital. “You’re standing up not only for yourselves but for the millions who can’t be here,” she said. “This bill will take benefits away from seniors in my state who rely on a state prescription drug plan. The real agenda is to end Medicare. That’s what this is all about, the old switcheroo. It is another Republican giveaway to the HMOs and the pharmaceuticals.”

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) vowed a determined fight against the bill in the House and urged Democratic senators to block it with a filibuster in the Senate. The crowd erupted in a chant, “Filibuster, filibuster!”

The demonstrators, many of them members of the AFL-CIO’s Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), came on buses from New York, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. Many wore union shirts, jackets and caps from more than a dozen unions. Edward F. Coyle, executive director of the ARA, told the crowd, “The Bush administration and Congress are callously using a much needed and long awaited prescription benefit to privatize Medicare.”

If enacted, Coyle warned, “Medicare as we know it will cease to exist. They may say they are looking out for seniors but they are really protecting the profits of the big pharmaceutical companies and insuring increased profits for the insurance industry.” ARA, he said, demands that the Senate kill this giveaway and enact a simple, straightforward prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) mentioned that AARP, the retiree group, endorsed the prescription drug plan and is running full-page ads admitting that the “Medicare bill isn’t perfect. But millions of Americans can’t wait for perfect.”

The room echoed with boos and shouts of “down with AARP!” Many went cross-town after the rally to picket AARP headquarters and burn their AARP membership cards in protest against the sellout. AARP CEO Bill Novelli wrote the preface for Newt Gingrich’s book on health care in which the former House Speaker called for letting Medicare “wither on the vine.” AARP runs a profitable business selling prescription drugs and has longstanding ties to Colonial Penn and other insurance companies.

Edward Vasko, a retired LTV steelworker wearing his SOAR cap, rode one of the three buses from Pittsburgh. “LTV eliminated everything we worked a lifetime for,” he said. “They took away our life insurance, health insurance, and pension benefits. Now the Bush administration is trying to phase Medicare out. If they have $87 billion to spend on Iraq, why can’t they find a few billion dollars to pay for a prescription drug benefit? We ought to have a plan where we go to pick up a prescription and we don’t pay anything for it.”

In a statement released a day earlier, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney charged that the prescription plan would undermine Medicare for 41 million recipients. “For years, seniors have been promised the one improvement to Medicare they said they need: coverage for prescription drugs,” Sweeney said. “What today’s deals offer instead is skimpy drug coverage coupled with reduction in benefits now guaranteed by Medicare, money for HMOs and pharmaceutical companies and a path to the probable privatization of the entire program.”

Democratic presidential candidates at a forum in New Hampshire sponsored by the AARP denounced the prescription drug bill. Retired Gen. Wesley Clark drew a strong ovation from the seniors at the forum. “This is a Trojan horse bill,” he said. “It’s got provisions in it to undercut Medicare. I think the American people want their representatives and their association [AARP] to stand up and be counted for senior citizens and that means rejecting this bill.” Only Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) waffled, refusing to say he would vote against the bill in the Senate. Bush wants the prescription drug bill as a centerpiece of his campaign for a second term. He vows to ram it through before Thanksgiving. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is leading the struggle in the Senate to block it, if necessary with a filibuster.

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