AARP defends cuts in Medicare

Two key votes expected today

By David Espo
Associated Press / December 3, 2009

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WASHINGTON - With a Senate showdown looming, the politically potent AARP rode to the rescue of Democrats yesterday, supporting $460 billion in Medicare cuts to help pay for landmark health care legislation.

As Republicans pressed to restore the cuts, AARP said Democrats merely were recommending elimination of waste and inefficiency within the giant health care program for seniors. “Most importantly, the legislation does not reduce any guaranteed Medicare benefits,’’ A. Barry Rand, the CEO of AARP, said in a letter to senators.

Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, said seniors would lose some of their add-on benefits that are part of coverage under private insurance Medicare. “Above all, we must not use Medicare as a piggy bank’’ to pay for other programs, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate from Arizona said.

Democrats, sensitive to the charges, rallied behind an alternative proposal by Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado, saying the bill would cause no reduction in guaranteed Medicare benefits.

A vote was expected today on the issue, one of two that have dominated early Senate floor debate on the sweeping health care legislation.

Women’s health care was the other. The two parties maneuvered for political advantage on that issue, as well, each backing a promise to provide new no-cost preventive procedures such as mammograms.

Republicans hastily rewrote their proposal after an initial estimate from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost at $30 billion over a decade - a significant requirement on the insurance industry from a political party that has criticized Democrats for seeking a government takeover of health care.

The AARP, which claims more than 40 million members, has played an influential role all year on health care, working with the Obama administration as well as Democratic leaders to help pass legislation. Polls have shown the group enjoys a high degree of trust among seniors, a group that tends to vote in disproportionately high numbers.

When Republicans held power in Congress, AARP’s decision to support a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare was a turning point in the drive to pass legislation.

Democrats were furious at the time. But now, in power, they have worked closely with the organization, and the political lines are reversed.

“Shame on AARP,’’ McCain said earlier in the week as he pressed his case to restore the cuts.

The biggest cuts are aimed at the Medicare Advantage program, in which private companies provide coverage. Studies show the government pays 14 percent more a year for each beneficiary covered in a private plan, compared with traditional Medicare.

Critics say that money goes into high executive salaries and profits for the firms. But supporters say the plans use the funds to provide extra benefits, sometimes including vision or dental coverage or gym memberships.

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