Angry seniors in sweat shirts reading “Shame” stalled a House committee hearing, and Democrats staged a rainsoaked protest on the Capitol lawn Friday as the political battle over Medicare began to rage.
The protests added a raw edge to already frayed relations between House members just as they begin work on the most sweeping overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid since the two health programs’ inception 30 years ago.
At one point, Democratic Rep. Sam Gibbons of Florida and Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of California, who nearly came to blows earlier in the week, glared at each other across the Ways and Means Committee hearing room dais after Gibbons described the GOP Medicare proposal “useless” and a “desecration.” Only calls from Thomas’ allies to “let it go” appeared to keep the two from going at it again.
Tempers were not quite as hot in the Senate but only because Senate Republicans issued their Medicare plan just Friday. Although the proposal followed the broad outlines of a House measure in seeking to cut back what Washington pays medical providers and encourage senior citizens to join HMOs and other cost-saving alternatives, it differed in several important respects.
Among the biggest differences for seniors: The Senate plan would raise about $70 billion, rather than the House’s reported $55 billion to $60 billion, from beneficiaries, and slowly would boost the eligibility age for Medicare from its current 65 to 67 after 2002.
The Senate measure drops several sweeteners in the House plan for doctors and hospitals, including provisions that would make it easier for them to create their own managed care networks by loosening some financial rules HMOs must now meet.
In a move likely to set a pattern for the fall, the House Commerce Committee approved 27-to-18, and largely along party lines, a Medicaid overhaul package that would save $182 billion over seven years by changing the government’s open-ended promise of health benefits to lump-sum payment to the states.
“We are on the verge of transforming the fastest-growing entitlement program in America,” said Republican Rep. Thomas J. Bliley, Jr. of Virginia.
“This bill deals a cruel blow to the 36 million poor women and children, disabled and elderly who depend on it,” countered Edward J. Markey, D-Mass. “It’s going to wreak havoc in Massachusetts,” which he said would get $4.2 billion less than what it is now slated to receive under current law between now and 2002.