Elaine Robechek apologized for not being up on the latest details of the Medicare package as congressional debate was wrapping up Monday. Her husband, Dick, recently returned to their Leisure World condo after a few days in the hospital for pneumonia, so she's been distracted.
But what she knows about the bill, she doesn't like. Its prescription drug plan, she believes, will help insurance companies more than it will help retirees.
"The administration is looking out for the big guys -- that, we know," said Robechek, 73, of Laguna Woods. "I think they need to come up with something, but I don't like the way they're going about it. I'm terribly upset. They're trying to pull the wool over people's eyes."
Congressional leaders and the White House, joined by AARP and other lobbying groups, have touted the $400-billion Medicare package as a boon for seniors.
But interviews with retirees in Orange County, New York City and Miami found solid opposition to the package from both Democrats and Republicans -- and growing frustration with AARP, suggesting that politicians might not be the only ones to suffer if there is any fallout.
"We were members of the AARP -- but it's not for seniors anymore," Louis Witkin, a 90-year-old retired hotel operator, said Monday as he pushed a shopping cart outside a Publix supermarket in Miami Beach. "They are a big business and AARP has betrayed us."
An AARP official acknowledged that there had been some criticism from members of the organization previously known as the American Assn. of Retired Persons, but he dismissed it as part of an "emotional response" to the Medicare package, which he said many seniors did not understand.
"Many of the folks who are contacting us and reacting in a really emotional way don't have all the facts," said Mark Beach, spokesman for AARP's California office in Sacramento. "One of the ideas that many people have is that this will somehow undermine traditional Medicare. AARP's position is that it doesn't."
At the heart of the package is a new optional prescription drug program for seniors -- if enacted, it would be the first such coverage offered by Medicare. The plan would help low-income seniors but do less for middle-class retirees -- and not go into effect for anyone until 2006.
"I will be dead by then," said Pearl Diamond, 90, a retired hotel desk clerk in Miami Beach.
Under the proposal, seniors would be able to enroll in a plan for $420 a year that, after a $250 deductible, would pay 75% of up to $2,000 in drug costs annually. The patient would pay for the next $2,850 in drug costs before Medicare would again start paying for prescriptions, picking up 95% of the cost.
The plan would offer a big break on premiums and deductibles for low-income seniors -- couples with incomes of less than $12,123 a year and singles with annual incomes of less than $8,980.
Backers of the Medicare package argued that it would provide drug coverage for seniors who now go without.
They also said the government program would become more efficient by using incentives to entice private insurers and managed-care businesses to compete with Medicare in providing prescription drugs and health care to more than 40 million people. Subsidies also would help discourage employers from dropping drug coverage for their retirees.
Beach said AARP officials decided to back the measure as "an important building block" toward a more comprehensive drug benefit, despite recognizing that the plan could be better. AARP officials said that in a survey released last week, 75% of members supported the Medicare measure, although polls by other groups found that about half of seniors opposed the bill after learning its details.
"The way [AARP leaders] feel is, it's better than nothing," said Art Callen, 82, of Torrance, a retired high school principal.
"My feeling is, you accept this and then you're stuck with it. I would rather wait a little bit longer and see if they could come up with something else. I think it has to be revised and made a little bit more palatable."
Callen, former chairman of the Torrance Commission on Aging, said the out-of-pocket costs for seniors would be prohibitive.
"A lot of people don't have [those] kind of bucks," he said. "Some seniors use maybe nine or 10 different medications a day."
Callen, who takes the cholesterol-lowering drug Zocor, antes up a $10 co-pay for a monthly supply under the drug plan included in medical coverage he and his wife buy for about $2,400 a year. He said they likely would not join the Medicare drug plan.
"I would stay exactly where I am," said Callen.
The Medicare package didn't find any more supporters Monday on Manhattan's Upper East Side among the post-lunch Bingo crowd at the Carter Burden Senior Citizens Center.
"The drug companies are going to be making out like bandits," said Alphonso DiDomenico, 69, a retired apartment house doorman. "The people who really need Medicare are going to have to struggle."
DiDomenico described his monthly routine of divvying up his Social Security income among envelopes: one for the rent, one for the phone, one for the cable. "It's not easy for seniors," he said. "It should be easier."
At a nearby table, Delores Miller, 81, agreed.
"You go to Europe and everything is just nice," said Miller, a former hospital receptionist. "They have free this and free that. When they get old, they don't have to worry.... They take care of their people."
At the front of the basement lunchroom, 93-year-old Alice, who declined to give her last name, pasted address labels on a stack of envelopes. Like the AARP officials, she viewed the prescription drug effort as a first step. But she did not see better steps to come.
"The drug companies will make out, not the seniors," she said as she worked. "Eventually, they'll try to privatize Medicare. That's what it will come to."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this report from Miami. Martelle reported from Orange County and Goldman from New York City.