Medicare: Worth Fighting For

Instead of moving to expand medical care to every American, the Senate voted this past month to push back Medicare coverage until seniors reach age 67, and to increase premiums for wealthier people.

The "statesmen" -- those who already have their insurance and retirement plans set up for life -- then turned to President Clinton to embrace their bold Medicare "reform" plan. Luckily, Clinton kept hands off and let the House Republicans kill it.

Clinton supported the concept of "means testing," or increasing costs for the wealthy. Sounds good, except we are convinced that it is part of a strategy to create different classes of Medicare coverage. There are plenty of Republicans who still condemn Medicare as socialized medicine and seek to weaken it any way they can.

In addition to raising Medicare premiums for elderly individuals with incomes above $50,000 and couples above $75,000, the "bipartisan" plan would gradually raise the threshold of eligibility from the current 65 years to 67 years (effective with people born in 1960). That would reinforce the notion among younger people that they will never be able to take advantage of Medicare.

The same conservative strategy has the government increasing the Social Security retirement age to 67, rather than adopting real reforms that would restore the current system, such as removing the cap on payroll tax for people who make more than $61,500 a year.

If Congress wants to reform Medicare, it should tax those people making $75,000 a year before they retire. That way we could extend Medicare to people below age 65. Shelving the capital gains tax cut would be a good start toward coming up with the cash.

As it stands now, a sick 45-year-old mom or dad who works in a shop where the boss cut the insurance after the last rate hike, or who got laid off when his or her job went south, is in no better shape than a 64-year-old senior who gets sick a year short of Medicare coverage. This "bipartisan" plan would simply put more of a burden on families, communities and charity hospitals to pay health costs for those who are bankrupted by their illnesses.

The Senate plan brought right-wingers such as Phil Gramm, R-Texas, together with centrists such as Bob Kerrey, D-Neb. Kerrey optimistically wrote in Roll Call, a Capitol weekly, that the bipartisan agreement to raise the age on Medicare coverage actually made universal health care more likely because at least Republicans were trying to save the health plan.

"If Republicans now agree with Democrats on the need for a government role in health care for 65-year-olds, the leap ought not be long to applying the same principle to 25-, 35, 45- and 55-year-old Americans -- now some 40 million strong -- whom the market has left uninsured as well," Kerrey wrote.

That is a much bigger leap of faith than we are prepared to attempt. Republicans are supporting Medicare reforms only because they got their butts kicked in 1995 when, in the bloom of the Republican Revolution, they tried to cut back on the program. But right-wing strategists think they can erode support for Medicare, as they did for welfare, by marginalising its beneficiaries and convincing younger voters that they will never benefit from it.

In the meantime, the conservatives will push to further privatize Medicare, although private contractors already are responsible for a large portion of an estimated $23 billion in Medicare overcharges. The conservatives also are fighting attempts to provide health insurance for children of the working poor.

Clinton and progressive Democrats may not be able to expand universal health care with this Congress, but they at least should stand firm against attempts to erode Medicare, or to balance the budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly, the infirm and rural health providers.

Ultimately, Clinton and the Democrats should stop playing defense on Medicare and retake the offensive, pushing Medicare for all Americans.

Republican Revolution Imploding?

IT'S HARD TO PICTURE Newt Gingrich as a moderate, which shows you how far out the right wing of the Republican Party has gotten. Last month the right-wingers tried to topple the stumbling Speaker. But they did not object to his ethics problems or his leading the House into gridlock with the President in the past few sessions. Instead the dissidents apparently are alarmed that Gingrich is now too accommodating with the President.

Democrats are used to fractious infighting, of course, but it is unusual to see the back-stabbing intrigues among Republicans. After just three years in a congressional majority the GOP is misbehaving like the Democrats at their worst in 40 years of rule.

This internecine battle presents an opportunity for progressives to organize at the grassroots to put together a people's agenda, elect progressive candidates -- whether Democrats or others -- in the 1998 election, take back the House and bury the Contract on America once and for all.

Faulty Strategy

While civil liberties advocates mourn the passing of William J. Brennan, the Clinton Administration has come up with a new strategy to get its nominees through the Senate: Appoint Republicans!

This strategy worked with Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the guardian of bond dealers, but it has been less successful with William Weld, the Massachusetts governor who was picked to be Clinton's ambassador to Mexico. Turns out Foreign Relations Chairman Jesse Helms, through whose committee ambassadorial nominees must pass, won't even give him a hearing because he's too moderate.

Now the Washington Post reports that the White House has decided to break the Senate's logjam on judicial nominees by elevating Republican-appointed judges. Two district judges nominated by Clinton in early July for appeals court seats, had been put on the bench by President Bush. The Senate has confirmed only one appeals court judge in the last 18 months and only six judges all year, leaving 102 vacancies on the 842-member federal bench.

Hope you don't need a trial in federal court. Even if you get your day in court, the judge likely will be a Republican who passes the right wing's smell test.

Organic Labeling

Our cover stories this month deal with whether genetically engineered food should be labeled as such, and whether the USDA should be able to declare that gene-jazzed food can be considered organic food -- and whether the USDA gives the final word on whether food is organic. Other stories deal with legislation to allow misleading "dolphin-safe" and "made in the USA" labels.

A related article by Abby Scher in the May/June issue of Dollars and Sense reports that pure-food activists have reason to be concerned about the USDA's and the Food and Drug Administration's cozy relationships with the multinationals they are supposed to regulate. Scher reports that conflict of interest and suppression of data contaminated the FDA's review of Monsanto's bovine growth hormone (BGH) and only came to light because of the pressure exerted by the nonprofit Rural Vermont, state legislators and Congressman Bernie Sanders.

Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO), put on the case by Sanders, warned as early as 1992 that the FDA had not truly considered the impact using lots of antibiotics on sick herds would have on milk drinkers.

The FDA approved the drug anyway in November 1993 and it went on the market. The GAO later discovered that two FDA staffers involved in approving the artificial hormone had once been researchers for the multinational and another staffer once served as Monsanto's lawyer.

FDA Chickens Out

Even when the FDA tries to protect health, it seems to step in it. Peter Montague of Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly said the agency may have undermined its credibility in July when it banned the shipment of dioxin-contaminated chickens and eggs from hundreds of producers, even as it played down the public health threat and initially exempted catfish producers from the ban.

After several years of study, the FDA set a standard of one part per trillion (ppt) as a "level of concern" for dioxin contamination, although government officials emphasized it was not to be taken as a "general action level for dioxin in foods." The agency initially, in a political compromise, exempted the most contaminated food: farm-raised catfish. A 1994 study found farm-raised Mississippi catfish fillets contained dioxin at levels ranging from 10.2 to 27.8 ppt.

Montague noted that the FDA's stance seemed certain to create public confusion and deep anger among chicken and egg producers. Some 2,000 workers in Arkansas were told to stay home when the FDA ban on chickens and eggs went into effect, and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on July 17 reported that half the eggs produced in Arkansas that week failed the 1 ppt dioxin test and could not be sold.

The federal government has volumes of data showing that dioxin harms wildlife and humans at exceedingly low levels. "However, because FDA has couched its ban in the language of 'no immediate threat to health,' and because catfish were initially exempted, then included, people naturally assume there really is no threat to health from dioxin and that the ban is somehow entirely political."

Contact Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, P.O. Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403; email: -- Jim Cullen

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