Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The nation’s leading senior citizen advocacy group is redoubling its efforts to pressure Congress into producing a Medicare prescription-drug bill by year’s end — a move they say is necessary after the chances of producing such a bill dwindled during August.

“We want to rebuild momentum so they can pass legislation this year,” said Steve Hahn, a spokesman for AARP.

The group plans to have a Capitol Hill rally Friday and deliver 100,000 petitions to lawmakers, urging them to get the job done this year. Thousands of AARP members will call lawmakers that day, too.

The group wrote a letter to Congress in July criticizing the House and Senate bills — currently in conference — which create prescription-drug benefits for Medicare seniors. The letter cited confusing, inadequate drug coverage and the creation of “an inherently unfair system” under a House bill provision requiring traditional Medicare to compete directly against private health plans.

But now, with the bills facing opposition from both sides of the political spectrum, AARP is worried the process is stalling.

“Our members are saying fix it and pass it,” Mr. Hahn said.

Last week, a coalition of more than 20 conservative and fiscal watchdog groups urged lawmakers to scrap both the House and Senate prescription-drug bills and start over, targeting the drug benefit only to those seniors who need it.

And Rep. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, said there is a growing concern among Republicans like himself who reluctantly voted for the House bill, that the “fundamental nature of the bill is flawed and we’re better off just going in another direction.”

Rep. Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican who voted against the House bill, agreed there has been “mounting opposition” to the current bills during August from the Republican base and seniors.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said seniors are worried they will lose their current private drug coverage once the new government drug benefit kicks in. The expectation is that employers will drop their retiree health coverage.

In addition to the outside pressures, the Medicare drug conference itself hit a notable bump in the road last week. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, pulled his aides out of last week’s staff-level conference meetings because he wanted the group to discuss all issues surrounding increased payments to rural healthcare providers.

Aides to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican and leader of the conference, said they would stick to the agenda sent out the previous Friday, which listed only some rural-related issues.

Despite the hitch, Mr. Grassley remains optimistic and committed to producing a final conference report, said his spokeswoman, Jill Kozeny.

Conference aides met consistently in a bicameral, bipartisan basis during August, making some tangible progress early on, with a tentative agreement on the drug discount card seniors will receive. The staff also tentatively agreed on 100 more pages of legislative language recently, a House Republican aide said.

Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of Health Plans, said her group wants the final bill to provide Medicare seniors with choices of private health plans, and supports the House bill’s competition approach. And though this is a different direction than AARP wants, Miss Ignagni agreed with Mr. Hahn that lawmakers should produce a final bill this year.

“The last thing America’s seniors want is for Congress to give up on Medicare reform,” she said.

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