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Conference On Aging Showing Signs Of Mellowing With Age Pragmatic Delegates Focus On Defending Existing Programs

In a fiscally cautious mood, more than 2,000 delegates to the White House Conference on Aging called Friday for a strong defense of Social Security and Medicare, but avoided the traditional demands for new government benefits for the elderly.

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., the conference chairman, called the meeting’s tone “pragmatic,” and said its legacy will be strengthened political support for the “sanctity” of the social contract between American workers and the elderly.

This years’ White House conference, the first since 1981, ended with a markedly different tone from prior gatherings, which traditionally prepared the ground for liberal enterprises such as Medicare itself, and the Older Americans Act, which funds senior centers and meal programs.

“This was a pretty pragmatic group of delegates,” Pryor said. “They did not support any new programs; they did not vote to create any new bureaucracies.”

In the current political climate, the delegates, many of whom are liberal in their politics and activist in their approach to government, were highly restrained. Their actions reflected concern over the federal budget deficit, a deepening skepticism of government, and the political reality of a Republican Congress determined to restrain the growth of spending.

The gathering passed 50 resolutions on subjects ranging from housing to legal aid, but the emphasis was on preserving the major social programs now benefitting the elderly.

Elected officials should “not use Social Security to reduce the budget deficit or balance the budget,” and the program should be strengthened and preserved “without means testing, with universal coverage and with continued full protection against inflation,” the delegates said in the most popular resolution, which drew support from 1,595 of the 2,002 delegates who cast ballots on Friday.

There were two separate resolutions approved Friday on Medicare, the first originally developed in miniconferences around the country and refined in three days of discussion here. It declared that the 36 million Medicare beneficiaries should be protected “with respect to health care affordability and access, giving special consideration to the burdens imposed by co-payments, deductibles and premiums.”

A second one, more partisan in tone and prepared by liberal and labor delegates, echoed the words the Clinton administration has been using in its fight with Congressional Republicans over Medicare. This resolution said the problems of Medicare should be considered in the context of broader health care reform backed by Clinton, and declared that Medicare and Medicaid savings should not be used to pay for “tax cuts for well-off citizens.”


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