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Political Battle Is Heating Up Over Medicare’s Costs, Future Is Program Going Broke, Or Is That ‘The Big Lie’?

Mon., Aug. 7, 1995

Members of Congress will spend their summer recess button-holing constituents at county fairgrounds and senior citizen centers as Republicans try to convince folks they mean Medicare no harm while Democrats warn of a looming “Medicare Pearl Harbor.”

The opposing generals, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., sent their troops home with thick packets and slide presentations arguing their views of Medicare’s predicament.

Exhibit A for the Republicans is a document that three members of President Clinton’s Cabinet had a hand in writing: the April 1995 Medicare trustees’ report warning that the hospital fund will go broke in 2002.

“This isn’t a train wreck. This is an airplane crash,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., pointing to a chart from the trustees’ report showing the precipitous slide.

But Democrats scoff at the Republicans’ alarm and insist the GOP’s real aim is to undermine the 30-year-old program, a mainstay of American life.

“The program is not broke. That is the big lie in their story,” said Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla.

But Republicans say Democrats are ignoring Medicare’s impending crisis as they try to foment a rebellion against the GOP’s budget plan, with its $270 billion in reduced Medicare spending over seven years.

Gingrich is to kick off his sales efforts at an Atlanta forum today on how to avoid Medicare’s bankruptcy.

The program is slated to feature Republican health experts and lawmakers; no Democrats accepted the invitation to share the stage with Gingrich.

The GOP’s 20 pages of charts and “suggested talking points” stress the need for lawmakers to convince constituents that Medicare is in deep trouble but that it can be fixed by slowing its rate of growth.

“Medicare spending can increase; it just can’t continue to increase at over 10 percent a year,” the packet states.

It promises that older Americans, who want to keep fee-for-service Medicare coverage with unlimited choice of doctors, will be able to do so. But they also will have other choices, including “coordinated care” plans, medical savings accounts and even the option of staying in an employer’s plan at age 65.

“We have a very important message to take to the country,” said Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga. The Republicans are offering “not a wonk solution, but an education about what the trustees have said very clearly.”

Meanwhile, Gephardt distributed a “Medicare Express” packet to departing Democratic lawmakers, suggesting they fan out to senior citizens, gather signatures against Medicare cuts and call news conferences to talk about the impact on local hospitals.

“We’ll be having town hall meetings all around the country,” said Gephardt, to focus on “this very extreme proposal.”

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