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