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Consumer Reports

Prescription drug coverage legislation draws ire from both sides | (KRT) Long-sought legislation to provide prescription drug coverage under Medicare is being attacked from the left and the right as Congress gets back to work this week, jeopardizing tenuous attempts to reach a compromise bill that will satisfy senior citizens.

Hundreds of retired union workers rallied on Capitol Hill in the rain on Thursday and then lobbied members of Congress to reject bills passed by the House and Senate. They strenuously argued that both bills are a bad deal for seniors, and worse than nothing.

"Half a moldy loaf is not worth anything," said Phyllis Lapidus, 71, of Boca Raton, Fla., on behalf of thousands of New York City teachers who have retired to Florida. "When you accept something bad, it makes it harder to change. What we are hoping is that when these bills fail, and they realize they have to do something, they will put together a bill that is better."

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Conservative groups also are lobbying against the legislation, complaining that it would fail to unleash enough market competition to keep prices in check. Both sides fear the Medicare reforms would prompt employers to drop their drug coverage for retired workers, leaving the task and its cost to the government.

Caught in the middle, AARP is pressuring Congress to pass drug legislation, but only if it does not hamper patients in the traditional Medicare program. Representatives of the 35-million-member organization plan to rally on Capitol Hill on Friday, set off an explosion of telephone calls, faxes and e-mails, and deliver more than 100,000 signatures of those who want a drug benefit added to Medicare.

"We really want to see legislation passed this year. We've been looking for this for more than a decade," said Michael Naylor, AARP's chief lobbyist in Washington. "This year both houses passed a bill, and we want to get it over the finish line. There will not be much appetite to take it up again if we don't bring it to fruition."

All these developments demonstrate how hard it is to make sweeping changes in the nation's patchwork health-care system, which has left more than 41 million Americans without health insurance and millions more without drug coverage.

Congress just two months ago appeared headed for an agreement on drug coverage to fulfill a long-standing political promise, only to hear cries of dissatisfaction from many constituents who see the impending results as a form of appeasement rather than substantial help.

"Too many gaps in service, with high deductibles and premiums. Too many people who would be spending more than they were spending before," said Hani Lipp, 61, of Deerfield Beach, who represents thousands of retired clothing and textile workers in Florida. "We'd rather have no legislation than the bills in there now. We need new legislation. Actually we need universal health care that includes prescription drugs."

Congress, meanwhile, remains divided between many Democrats who press for government-supervised drug coverage and many Republicans who want Medicare to compete with the private market. This ideological divide has made compromise difficult as members from the House and Senate try to reconcile their bills to enact a final product.

"I wouldn't say it's unraveling. But it's been stalled for the last six or seven weeks," said Naylor, the AARP lobbyist. "It's important enough that we need to kick-start it and re-ignite the enthusiasm for this kind of legislation."

AARP, with millions of members from both major parties, has raised concerns of its own, particularly regarding the House version, which calls for competition between private insurance plans and Medicare by 2010. This provision alarms many senior citizens who fear it would lead to "privatization" of Medicare to the disadvantage of lower-income and less healthy patients.

"They don't have a right to destroy our Medicare program!" shouted George Kourpias, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, at the union rally on Thursday.

Ironically, a coalition of conservative groups is lobbying against the legislation from the opposite side of the political fence.

"The biggest objection is that one-third of seniors are covered by their former employers, and (an estimated) one-third of them are going to lose their coverage," said Donald Devine, chairman of the coalition and former director of the Federal Employees Health Benefits plan. "These are millions of middle-class senior citizens who are going to get dumped by their employers from good private coverage to get less coverage by the government."

Conservatives also are uneasy about creating a new government entitlement program. "It's terrible public policy and foolish politics," Devine said. "The long-term reforms don't kick in until 2010, and who knows what (potential) President Hillary Clinton would do with it."

President Bush and Republican leaders generally support the House version and hope something like it will be passed before they face voters in the next election.

Enactment may depend on the president and Democratic heavy-hitters, such as Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, pressuring Congress to reach a compromise. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Thursday he was "absolutely confident" Congress would pass a final drug bill.

Most members are anxious to please their senior-citizen constituents, however, and the initial response to the current bills is ominous. Passage of drug legislation this year, which seemed so likely just a few weeks ago, now appears highly uncertain.

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© 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services