Portland seniors ‘blow whistle’ on Medicare privatization plan

Portland area senior citizens and their allies “blew the whistle” on a plan by Congress to privatize Medicare during a noisy downtown rally Aug. 6.

The group — led by the Oregon Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA) — gathered at the front steps of the Marriott Hotel on Southwest Naito Parkway. Their target: Oregon U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith, and Medicare Administrator Thomas Scully. The three were at the hotel to address a group of health care administrators, doctors and nurses on the proposed changes to Medicare.

Both the House and Senate versions of the Medicare prescription drug bill (HR 1 and S1) would turn over a fixed pot of money to private insurers, who would determine the specifics of the Medicare benefits for prescription drugs.

According to the Oregon AFL-CIO’s analysis, the pending legislation will do nothing to reduce costs and, by converting from a single payer to multiple payers, will undercut the government’s ability to negotiate the best price for prescription drugs, as it does now with its bulk purchases for Veterans Administration hospitals.

“Medicare is a one-size-fits-all, single-payer system,” Scully told the Portland forum, ignoring the fact that both Medicaid and Medicare deliver more health care for the dollar than private insurance plans.

Scully, whose official title is administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, added: “We try to be the best price-fixers we can be, but that’s no way to run a health care system.”

If not, then what is? the state labor federation asked.

“Turning more of the program over to private insurers was the direction Scully implied in his criticism of the system he was hired to administer,” the AFL-CIO said.

“The Medicare prescription drug bills are a shameful attempt to leave the health of America’s seniors in the hands of profiteering private insurers,” said Dani Pere, Northwest field organizer for the ARA.

And Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt called on Congress “to support a prescription drug benefit that is administered by and through Medicare – one that benefits America’s senior citizens and not pharmaceutical companies.”

The Portland rally was part of a national protest against the Medicare drug proposals.

At their first event on July 21, five busloads of Alliance activists attempted to deliver a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., but were met by police in riot gear.

In Phoenix July 23, five senior activists were arrested when they refused to leave the office of Republican Senator John Kyl after the senator’s staff would not meet with them to discuss his efforts to privatize Medicare.

As part of the campaign, the Alliance is is providing a toll-free number – 1-800-511-3802 – for retirees to call their senators and representatives to urge them not to privatize Medicare and to retain existing employer-provided drug benefits.

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