CHICAGO – A spirited crowd of several hundred people braved the early morning chill June 11, to protest as President Bush arrived here to push what they charge is a phony Medicare prescription drug plan.

“We’ve got to move and move fast if we are going to derail Bush and his supporters in Congress,” William McNary, chair of USAction, told participants. “Bush wants a plan by July 4 and the Senate leadership has promised to deliver.”

McNary warned that the plan being put together by a bipartisan coalition of moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats in the Senate falls far short of what is necessary to provide a universal drug benefit for the 39 million people covered by Medicare.

As presently written, the Senate plan, with a monthly premium of $35, has an annual deductible of $275 and will cover only half of out-of-pocket drug costs up to $3,450 annually. After that there will be no reimbursement for prescription drugs until a beneficiary has spent $5,300 on drugs in a given year. At that point the plan will pay 90 percent of prescription costs.

According to an analysis of similar plans by the Congressional Budget Office, the proposal could prompt employers to drop coverage for 3 million retirees who use it to fill in gaps in Medicare. HMOs have already dropped more than 2 million Medicare beneficiaries.

Although Medicare beneficiaries will not be required to buy into an HMO or Preferred Provider Plan in order to be eligible for prescription drugs, they will be required to buy a stand-alone policy from a private insurance company if they want drug coverage.

Mimi Gilpin, a retired member of the United Auto Workers (UAW), said she had come for two reasons: “Number one, we have to defend Medicare from the privatizers. But these rallies serve a second purpose: they are opportunities to mobilize people to take back our government in 2004. I shudder to think of what America will be like if Bush gets a second term in the White House.”

Gilpin, now in her 70s, considers herself lucky when it comes to prescription drugs. “There’s a $2 co-pay for prescriptions under the UAW plan,” she told the World. “That shows what a decent plan could and should do.”

Neither Ann Baneck, a retired Teamster, nor Adela Robles, a Needle Trades (UNITE) retiree, are as lucky. Each pays more than $100 weekly for prescription drugs and often has to choose between medicine and food. Robles, still feisty at 87, says she needs the medicines to stay alive. “The high price of prescription drugs is a death sentence for many seniors,” she told the World.

Labor leaders and health care advocates have joined the nationwide chorus denouncing the Senate bill introduced by Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

George Kourpias, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, called the Senate bill a “quick fix and a bad bill for personal political gain at the expense of America’s seniors.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeny said, “This proposal will not provide seniors with the predictable and affordable drug coverage they need and deserve. And it discriminates against good union and employer retiree plans. Congress must provide enough funding to treat retirees equitably and to fill the gap in coverage.”

Dianne Lardie, policy director for the Universal Health Care Action Network, ridiculed Bush’s call for “competition” in providing prescription drugs under Medicare. “Seniors are not looking for large numbers of plans from which to choose,” she said. “They want to choose their doctors and get quality care at an affordable price. Indeed the health conditions of seniors (sight, hearing, cognitive deficiencies) make ‘competition’ among plans frustrating, not helpful.”

People are being urged to immediately contact their senators by calling the toll-free number: (877) 331-1224.

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries