Senators clash over health plan’s effects

Warnings to elderly decried as ‘scare tactics’

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Erica Werner
Associated Press / December 2, 2009

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WASHINGTON - A Republican senator contended yesterday during rancorous debate that President Obama’s health care overhaul would shorten the lives of seniors by cutting Medicare.

“I have a message for you: You’re going to die sooner,’’ said Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a former obstetrician.

A veteran Democrat took to the floor to decry such comments as “scare tactics’’ designed to kill a plan he said would improve some benefits for the elderly.

The Senate Finance Committee’s chairman, Max Baucus, said the cuts would make Medicare a smarter buyer and would improve prescription coverage.

The Senate was debating an amendment by John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, that would strip from the bill more than $400 billion in Medicare cuts to home health providers, hospitals, hospices, and others.

Polls show that seniors are concerned that expanding coverage for the uninsured will come at their expense. But Medicare spending actually would keep growing under the Democrats’ legislation, though at a somewhat slower rate.

Despite the partisan tone, the first amendment offered was bipartisan, a measure to increase preventive care for women, cosponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only Senate Republican to vote in favor of a Democratic bill in committee.

Their amendment would give the Health and Human Services secretary authority to require health plans to cover additional preventive services for women and was inspired, in part, by controversial recommendations last month that women undergo fewer mammograms and Pap smears to test for cancer. Republicans seized on those recommendations as early signs of the rationing of care they say would happen under the Democrats’ 10-year, nearly $1 trillion bill.

The amendment “makes clear, no matter what the Republicans claim, that the decision whether or when to get a mammogram should be left up to the patient and the doctor,’’ said Senate majority leader Harry Reid. “That decision should not be made by some bureaucrat, a member of Congress, or someone they’ve never met.’’

The amendment does not specifically address mammograms or spell out what additional services would be covered, leaving that to the discretion of the HHS secretary. The Congressional Budget Office said the amendment would cost $940 million over a decade.

Last month, a government-appointed but independent panel of doctors and scientists said women generally should begin routine mammograms in their 50s, rather than their 40s. Then, in an apparent coincidence, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said most women in their 20s can have a Pap test every two years - instead of annually - to catch slow-growing cervical cancer.

Neither the task force, which provides advice to government officials who may or may not act on it, nor the doctor’s group sets federal policy.

But the recommendations could not have come at a worse time for Democrats, especially Senate leaders trying to get the 60 votes required to advance the health care overhaul.

“We know that some in Washington have wanted government-run health care for years. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that these same people saw the current economic crisis as their moment,’’ said Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.