Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seniors Complete Conference

On the 3rd day of the Alliance for Retired Americans Legislative Conference in Washington DC, June 17, retired union members had breakfast with their own unions. In the plenary session afterward, they heard an uplifting message from U.S. Rep Jan Schakowsky (D-IL). She was solidly on the side of the retirees and predicted that meaningful health care reform, which was defeated in 1994, will pass in 2009. “They will not stop us this time!” she announced to strong applause.

One of the issues she raised may seem complicated to some. She said, “We need to eliminate overpayments to Medicare Advantage plans.” The disastrous Medicare Prescription Drug Part (D) plan of 2003 had allowed insurance companies to administer Medicare funding for their private insurance clients. They “cherry picked” the insurable population and demanded, and received, increases in the government subsidy for their private programs. Speakers estimated their overcharging at between 12 and 20%! The issue is very clear to ARA members, who oppose these “Medicare Advantage” private plans, and to the American Alliance for Retired Persons (AARP) which supports them, takes the subsidies, sells the insurance and helped get the 2003 drug bill passed.

Referring to Medicare Advantage, Schakowsky said, “It is not a level playing field when they receive 14% in overpayments… that cost every Medicare recipient another $3/month.”

Other big issues came out of the 2003 bill, such as the prohibition on negotiating drug prices. The bill requires seniors to pay prices that the drug companies set. The bill also requires seniors to pay all of their drug costs when they fall into the “donut hole” starting at about $2,700 in annual expenses.

Schakowsky and all of the conference speakers agreed that the biggest issue currently facing retirees is whether or not proposed reform bills will include a “public option” as President Obama wants. The Representative made the point that federal law prohibits regulation of insurance companies, even on anti-trust issues. She said, “The only competition that the insurance companies will have is the public plan.”

Representative Schakowsky supported another bill that would provide insurance for long-term care. She said, “Once we are successful in getting our health care bill, we have to return to a comprehensive long term care coverage.”

Schakowsky told the retirees, “This is the moment.” A timetable is set, but details are still coming out. One key committee, the Senate Finance Committee, announced that they would not begin revealing details of their proposals until after the July 3 recess. Schakowsky said, “It will be your work today and your work back home that will determine what’s in the bill.”

Schakowsky went on from health care to trade issues. She said, “Our trade policies have not been with people in mind. Neither the people in our country nor the people in the other countries that we are dealing with…. That ideology has changed and now we are going to be looking at trade legislation from the point of view of the workers.”

After the session, hundreds of retirees were bused to Capitol Hill to lobby their representatives. Afterward, they shared their experiences at a town hall meeting back at the Washington Hilton hotel.

At a banquet that evening, they honored the first president of the ARA, former Machinist President George Kourpias. ARA President Barbara Easterling joined AFL-CIO Secretary Rich Trumpka and Machinist President Tom Bufffenbarger in tribute.

On the final morning, retirees met with their state or regional organizations. Thirty states are already chartered, and retirees are organizing in the other twenty.

The main speaker at the plenary session was Steve Protulis, Executive Director/Executive Vice President, Elderly Housing Development & Operations Council. He emphasized the crisis in housing for America’s seniors and asked for help with Senate Bill 118 on refinancing homes.

ARA Legislative Director Rich Fiesta reviewed the Alliance’s very successful efforts in the 2008 election and projected activities for 2010, when redistricting of Congressional Districts will be a top priority. He said that there are 35 governor’s races anticipated. Governors can, in many states, overturn and veto redistricting plans. He made the point that the ARA will keep track provide information on which candidates supported meaningful health care reform, and which ones took money from insurance and pharmaceutical companies.

President Easterling told the assembly that this historic moment in America will be affected by what the delegates do in their home areas. She emphasized attendance at the June 25 health care rally in Washington and related events throughout the country.

--Jim Lane

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