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Medicare backlash for AARP

Democrats criticize organization's backing of GOP drug proposal

BEDFORD, N.H. -- The AARP, which has decided to back a $400 billion plan for Medicare to provide prescription drug coverage to seniors, yesterday found itself being booed by its own members and criticized by several Democratic presidential contenders at a candidates forum sponsored by the retiree group.

The boos emanated from a sizable portion of an audience that numbered several hundred. They bolstered denunciations from retired Army general Wesley K. Clark of Arkansas, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, and Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Each accused the group of yielding to GOP pressure and accepting what they called imperfect legislation, a Republican-drafted plan the AARP endorsed on Monday.

Clark said the plan "doesn't curb spiraling costs" and is "a giveway to HMOs."

Kerry bluntly told the AARP it is making a mistake with plans to spend $7 million for ads backing the legislation, which he said was written by lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry and health maintenance organizations.

"What's wrong in America today is that we have a president who's in the pocket of the powerful interests, and we deserve a president who's going to stand up and give Americans a real deal, not a raw deal," Kerry declared.

Diana Holtshouser and Beverly Archambault, both 71, expressed disappointment in an organization they joined two decades ago. "I thought AARP was on our side," Archambault told the Washington Post. "I don't like them spending so much money trying to influence Congress on this."

The three other candidates at the forum, Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, avoided direct criticism of the AARP, formerly the American Association of Retired Persons.

Gephardt did condemn the legislation, saying, "It's a Republican bill, therefore it's a bad bill."

Lieberman refused to take an immediate position. "I'm not going to give a knee-jerk, reflex reaction and say `no way,' " he said. The senator said he was working with a colleague, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, to change the legislation, adding, "When you're president, you rarely get big decisions that are all good or all evil. You've got to decide what's best."

Dean said "$400 billion is enough" to provide a drug benefit, but added that Medicare needs an overhaul to deliver service better. Brushing back Gephardt for saying Dean previously supported Medicare spending cuts, the physician pulled out a stethoscope and told the audience: "I have no intention of cutting their health care benefits. . . . I think this bill is a disaster. I think to do something is not always the right thing to do if the something is worse than doing nothing."

Kerry, who is trailing fellow New Englander Dean in polls of likely New Hampshire primary voters, came to Gephardt's defense, replying: "Holding up a stethoscope and saying you have no intention of cutting people doesn't, in fact, mean that you have not, and as governor, the governor, in fact, raised prescription prices and proposed cutting people on several occasions, three to be precise, from prescription drugs." The senator's campaign distributed copies of Vermont news stories showing Dean had proposed cutting a drug benefit under Medicaid for some of the state's moderate-income seniors in 1993, 1996, and 2002.

Dean and Gephardt clashed at another point in the debate, after all the candidates were asked how they could implement their plans if the Republican Party continues to control both the House and Senate after the 2004 general election.

Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader, said his election would be part of a Democratic tide that would return control of Congress to his own party.

Dean replied: "In all due respect to Dick Gephardt, who's a very decent person, and who I worked for for president in 1988, you had four terms [as House minority leader] to bring in a Democratic majority and you didn't do it."

The former governor said he would be successful because a fundamental underpinning of his campaign is a plan to spark grassroots political activity by 2 million Americans, which he said would be enough foot soldiers to allow a Democratic sweep not only of the presidency, but also the House and Senate.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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