WASHINGTON – The Medicare bill that has split Congress has also split Maryland organizations that represent senior citizens.
While the United Seniors of Maryland coalition is urging the state’s members of Congress to oppose the bill, one of its members, AARP Maryland, argues that Congress needs to pass some form of prescription drug coverage under Medicare as soon as possible.
“Controversy is so new to our experience,” said Jack Knox, president of United Seniors of Maryland. Their groups are almost always “of one mind . . . I can’t even think of a situation where there’s disagreement.”
The bill before Congress is the most comprehensive change in Medicare since the program began in the mid-1960s. Both the House and Senate passed their own versions earlier this year, but the proposal before Congress now was crafted largely by GOP leaders.
Liberals are upset by reforms, such as opening the door to private competition, that they say will begin the “death spiral” for the federally funded health insurance program for people over 65. Some conservatives are upset by the expansion of the program and the costs of a prescription drug plan, the first ever for Medicare.
“Medicare is such a complex program that it would be impossible to please everyone,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Thursday. If “we take this giant step forward in the beginning . . . then we can come back and make it better.”
AARP Maryland, like its national counterpart, argues that this may be the best chance to get a prescription drug benefit, before spiraling medical costs make such a benefit nearly impossible under Medicare.
“We don’t think the bill is perfect,” said Kelley Coates, spokeswoman for AARP Maryland. But “it’s actually a good step toward perfection. You have to seize the moment.”
The bill would offer all Medicare recipients a discount card and provides the most generous benefits to seniors who live below the federal poverty level. They would pay only $1 to $3 per prescription. The bill would also increase reimbursement rates for physicians, hospitals and rural areas.
But some groups say that the bill does more harm than good, or that they do not know enough about the 1,100-page bill to endorse it.
It has also put some groups in an awkward position: The Maryland Retired Teachers Association is a member of both United Seniors of Maryland and the education division of AARP.
The retired teachers signed on to a United Seniors of Maryland letter addressing flaws in the bill — but MRTA President Judith Zahren said her group backed away from a formal position on the legislation because it did not have enough information.
Zahren’s group is also worried that the bill will force retirees with good health plans to change to an inferior Medicare plan. Since most retired teachers in Maryland get some health benefits from their old employers, those who retire in a jurisdiction with generous benefits — such as Montgomery County — might lose out if their employer drops coverage after the Medicare bill passes, she said.
The National Association of Retired Federal Employees has a similar concern for its members, said Ron Bowers, president of the Maryland chapter. He said many of his members currently pay very little for health care because they are covered by both Medicare and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.
While the bill provides $88 billion in incentives for employers to continue providing coverage for retirees, Knox said it was not clear whether all that money would be used effectively.
“The details are frequently where the problems lie,” he said.
AARP knows many members will be disappointed by its endorsement of the Medicare bill, said David Certner, the association’s director of federal affairs. But AARP wants to see some progress.
“We keep starting from scratch all over again,” he said.
Knox said he understands why AARP has become so anxious to see a new law.
“AARP has made a very calculated call,” he said. “I can’t really be critical of them.”