Democratic Candidates Bash AARP Over Medicare Bill

Times Staff Writer

Democratic presidential hopefuls on Tuesday found themselves in the odd position of criticizing the AARP, at a forum sponsored by the seniors' group, for backing proposed changes to Medicare. They seemed delighted, however, when hundreds of AARP members cheered in agreement.

The Republican-sponsored, $400-billion, 10-year proposal to add prescription drug coverage would weaken the federal program for seniors while enriching insurers and drug companies, Democrats charged.

This week the seniors' national lobbying organization, previously known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons, endorsed the legislation and announced it would spend $7 million to drum up the votes needed to pass it in Congress.

"This is a bad bill," Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said to cheers from a crowd of about 800. "What's wrong with AARP coming out in support of this bill is that they're falling into the trap set by the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies."

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina argued that the bill "takes billions of dollars that could be used to improve benefits for seniors and instead pumps those billions into big HMOs." And Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said he wished "AARP was spending its $7 million telling Americans what is wrong with this bill."

Of the six Democrats who attended the forum, only Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman did not outright criticize the legislation and the AARP's backing, saying he wanted "to take a few days" to learn more about the proposal.

The bill, announced over the weekend, would create a prescription drug benefit for Medicare recipients beginning in 2006, and would offer incentives for private insurers to compete with government to offer health-care coverage for the elderly.

Democrats have long sought to provide prescription benefits, but most don't want parts of Medicare privatized, nor do they want to see President Bush achieve a major legislative victory in an election year.

Additionally, the hopefuls do not relish the idea of battling the AARP -- a group with 35 million members and considerable clout in Washington.

When a television spot from the ad campaign was played at the Wayfarer Inn Convention Center, showing seniors praising the plan, members of the audience booed.

Although AARP members at the forum offered several reasons for their skepticism, the primary sticking points were privatization and that the bill was crafted by Republicans, with little input from Democrats.

"I don't know all about it, but I can't trust big companies and Republicans when it comes to Medicare or Social Security or things like that," said Rose Haley, 70, a registered Democrat.

Whether other AARP members will be similarly skeptical is unclear. Nearly one-third of New Hampshire voters are over age 50, and the state's median age of 37.1 is the eighth oldest in the nation, according to 2000 Census figures. New Hampshire is also relatively left-leaning, with 54% of voters polled during the 2000 primary saying they considered themselves "liberal."

"I'm not surprised at the response of the AARP here, but that's not the response you're going to get from the AARP in Washington D.C.," said Andrew Smith, head of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "The AARP is an incredibly effective group, and one reason is that they understand political dynamics. They know they have to work with the Republican leadership to get anything done."

Three Democratic hopefuls did not attend the AARP gathering: the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich.

Several Democratic contenders arrived prepared for the topic: Lieberman brought his 89-year-old mother, Marcia; Edwards told the crowd he proudly received his AARP membership last year, when he turned 50; and Dean, a medical doctor, brought a stethoscope.

"I'm the only one up here who has taken care of patients," Dean said, holding up the prop. "I'm not going to cut their benefits."

That prompted a harsh retort from Kerry. "Holding up a stethoscope and saying you have no intention of cutting [benefits] doesn't mean you haven't," Kerry said, referring to charges that Dean sided with Republicans in 1995 on a proposal to slash $270 billion from the program.

Dean, who is viewed as the front-runner here, later took a slap at Gephardt after the former House minority leader said he was confident that, as president, he could get a health-care plan through Congress.

"You had four terms to bring in a Democratic majority," Dean noted, "and you didn't do it."

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