LAUREL, Md. — House Democrats fanned across the country last weekend for a spring offensive on the new prescription-drug program, holding more than 70 town-hall meetings.
They planned to tell seniors that the new drug law threatens Medicare as they know it.
In his home district’s Phelps Senior Citizen Center, 25 miles from the Capitol, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer teamed with Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to do his part to stoke doubt about the new law.
The town-hall meeting was one part policy and two parts politics; Hoyer and Cardin urged senior citizens to take action against the new drug-benefit program.
“If you have a brother or a sister in a district who voted for it, let them know that this is a bad bill,” said Cardin.
Before Hoyer began his presentation, most seniors expressed confusion about how the new law would affect them.
“We’re scared that when this goes into effect, this is going to affect our program, which we quite like,” said Bulah Sink, who sat with her husband, Jessie.
As a former federal employee, Mr. Sink is covered by the Federal Employee Benefits
Program. The Sinks voted for President Bush and Hoyer in 2000 but said their concern about the war in Iraq, the new Medicare law and the federal debt could prompt them to vote a straight Democratic ticket come November.
“For now,” Mrs. Sink said, “We are just here to listen.”
Connecting with the crowd, the 64-year-old Hoyer began with his own confession to the assembly of some fifty seniors. “I take Lipitor every day,” he said, adding that for many of the people in the room, the drugs they take are a matter of life and death.
After a brief history of the Medicare program, Hoyer explained how advances in the pharmaceutical industry have drastically altered the way medicine is practiced since the program’s creation in 1965.
Then Hoyer’s tone turned grave and serious. His voice lowered as he prepared to explain Congress’s response to these fundamental changes.
“We passed a bill.” Hoyer said, then paused. “It was controversial.” Another pause. “I did not vote for it.
“In the long run, it puts Medicare at risk. … Ultimately, it will drive up the cost for seniors.”
Hoyer’s midmorning audience was attentive. A few seniors scribbled notes and several shook their heads in disgust as local TV cameras captured the proceedings.
“Usually you have 15 minutes to vote, and another two minutes to get there,” said Hoyer of the Medicare vote in the House, “Seventeen minutes. Total.
“For … two hours, 45 minutes, this bill was losing, this bill was losing and they kept [the vote] open.”
Hoyer then explained how “by various devices, some of which have not been so nice,” the Republicans managed to pass their bill.
That law will begin to affect coverage in 2006, he told the seniors, and for aid he turned to the Families USA video the Democrats are using all across the country — a video “this generation will really like, because Walter Cronkite [who does the voiceover] was with us through so much.”
A four-minute version of the Cronkite video explains the “doughnut hole” in drug coverage by depicting a senior citizen comfortably walking along the screen while covered for his first 2,250 dollars in prescription cost.
Then the cartoon figure ominously falls through a giant doughnut-shaped hole until coverage kicks back in at $3,600, taking a few more steps before he walks off the screen. Forever.
By this point in the video, several members of Hoyer’s audience were shaking their heads. Falling through a doughnut hole does not seem like something they want to do.
Next, Cardin, a healthcare specialist on the Ways and Means Committee, criticized the new law for preventing the government from negotiating with drug companies to get a reduction in prices.
“It’s outrageous that the government is prohibited from negotiations with the pharmaceutical industry, unlike the Veterans Administration,” said Cardin.
Cardin’s voice boomed through the sound system and as the audio faded in and out, at least one senior adjusted her hearing aide.
“They (the Republicans) don’t like Medicare. They want to privatize Medicare,” said Cardin.
Hoyer interjected, pointing to a large graphic that has various Republican Medicare quotes — from Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) and former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) — that Hoyer said reveals the Republican’s true intentions to undermine Medicare.
No Democratic bugbear escaped Hoyer’s political jabs. He castigated former CMS administration Tom Scully for taking a job with a law firm that has pharmaceutical clients.
In questions to the lawmakers, one inquiry that triggered an eruption of applause came from 67-year-old-Beverly Renoud.
“Do you know how much money was spent on Medicare this year and how much was spent on healthcare in Iraq? When will we start taking care of us, instead of the entire world?” Renoud asked.