October 5, 1995
When Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn, recently returned to her district,
she found some harsh criticisms of the GOP's plan to change Medicare.
Kwame Holman traveled with Rep. Johnson around her district for
KWAME HOLMAN: Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson had planned to spend most of this week in her district with senior citizens, calming the fears they have in anticipation of big changes in Medicare. She wasn't expecting a confrontation with several labor union members along the way. But she didn't back away from it either.
MAN: We support universal health care coverage nationwide, across this country, which would obviate the need to cut $270 billion and get it to the wealthiest people in this country.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON, (R) Connecticut: You're telling people you can get something for nothing.
MAN: No, ma'am, we're not. You're telling people they're going to get something for nothing as well. There will be pain. There will be suffering. There will be twice the pain for cutting $270 billion.
KWAME HOLMAN: Johnson is a seven-term representative from Connecticut and a senior member of the Ways & Means Committee, intimately involved in drawing up the House Republican Medicare Reform Plan. Her district includes Torrington, a blue-collar mill town that over the years has managed to retain some of its manufacturing base, most of its Yankee charm, and many native New Englanders, including the 70 or so residents of Torrington, who come to the Edward Sullivan Senior Center for lunch every day.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Good morning, ladies. How are you this morning?
KWAME HOLMAN: And so on Tuesday, following her brief impromptu debate outside, Johnson kept her noontime appointment inside.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: We're going to talk a little bit about Medicare so that you'll know what's going on.
MAN IN ROOM: Why do they want to cut Medicare?
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Well, we're not going to cut Medicare. I'll talk about that in detail. You have to have a place to start, and that's what the current bill is. And I want you to understand the outlines of it so you see what the discussion is about. There's absolutely nothing to be afraid of.
KWAME HOLMAN: Almost every table had a question about Medicare. The point Johnson wanted to stress was that any changes in Medicare coverage directly affecting seniors would be voluntary.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: It is entirely voluntary. You can choose to stay in the current Medicare program, and at the same premiums you're paying now, you're paying 31 percent of program cost, the premiums will go up a little bit, no more than the past. So there is truly nothing to fear. You can stay in the current program. Your premiums will grow only the same way they've been growing.
KWAME HOLMAN: But while Johnson assured seniors they could stay in the current Medicare program, she tried to convince them that switching to a private program had its benefits.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: I'll tell you why. Because the new programs that come on the market that you're going to have the right to choose are going to offer you better benefits, and anyone, for instance, who has high drug costs is going to look at those programs. Now, if you look at that program and you decide to join a managed care plan that offers drug benefits, and you don't like it, you can get out.
KWAME HOLMAN: But for most of these seniors, the current Medicare system is working fine, and so Johnson stresses the importance of protecting the next generation.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: We have not made any provision in Medicare for when the baby boomers retire. We have saved no money. This year, Medicare costs $178 billion. If we do nothing, in the year 2002, which isn't very far away, Medicare will cost $348 billion. So we do have to get serious about Medicare, and there are ways that we can make Medicare a better program for the current seniors and yet guarantee it will be there in the future for future retirees, i.e., your kids and grandkids.
KWAME HOLMAN: What's making changes in Medicare particularly tough to sell is the belief by some that much of the proposed $270 billion savings in Medicare will be used to pay for congressional Republicans' proposed tax cut.
MAN: Are you telling me for sure right now that you're not putting that into a tax cut?
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: I can tell you that for absolute certain.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: There's a lot of misunderstanding. There are many people in this debate that are really interested in creating fear and don't use the facts to create fear, just use change to create fear.
REP. BEN CARDIN, (D) Maryland: The Republicans would have you believe that we've got to cut $270 billion from the Medicare trust fund, from the Medicare system in order to help the solvency. And yet, they put most of that money into their tax breaks for wealthy people, not into the Medicare system. That's what they're doing. They're financing a tax cut.
KWAME HOLMAN: While Nancy Johnson was working hard to sell the Republicans' Medicare reform plan in Connecticut, Ben Cardin, her Democratic colleague on the Ways & Means Committee, was working just as hard against it in Maryland. Cardin, a five-term congressman from Baltimore, represents an overwhelmingly white working-class and heavily Democratic district, with about a 15 percent elderly population, almost the same percentage of elderly as in Johnson's district.
REP. BEN CARDIN: Yes.
WOMAN: If they want to cut Medicare, why don't they take it away from people that have large incomes coming in, that really don't need it, and give it to the middle class and the poor?
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrat Cardin spent part of Tuesday sharpening his attacks on the Republicans' Medicare reform plan in front of a receptive audience at the John Booth Senior Center.
REP. BEN CARDIN: Let me just tell you some of the specifics. We've calculated that for you to maintain the same benefits by the year 2002--that's when the plan is fully implemented--it's going to cost you $1,000 a year more for Medicare. Now, maybe you can afford another $1,000 a year, is that okay, another $1,000 a year?
KWAME HOLMAN: Cardin warned that the Republican plan relies heavily on seniors moving into managed care or health maintenance organizations in order to achieve Medicare savings.
REP. BEN CARDIN: They don't want you to be able to keep your own doctor; they want you to go into these HMO plans. It's one thing if you choose to go into an HMO plan. You like the network; that's fine. But how many of you like the idea of choosing your own doctor? How many of you are willing to give that up? I don't see many takers.
PAT BROESSEL: (in audience) Has anyone thought about what is going to happen to those people's preexisting conditions when these options refuse to take 'em for that reason?
REP. BEN CARDIN: That's an excellent question. That's how the system is going to change. But your point about what do you do, you can't find a doctor, or you can't find a health care plan, you're right. How many health care plans are going to have their welcome mat out for you if you're over 65, if you have prior health care conditions? They want the young person who has a clean health care record. That's where they make money. This is their--this is why it just doesn't work, it doesn't work.
KWAME HOLMAN: Pat Broessel has intimate experience with how the current health care system works. For nearly 40 years, she's been a hospital administrator in several states. Broessel says she has seen abuses in the kinds of managed care health plans Republicans are suggesting seniors move into.
PAT BROESSEL: I have seen calls made to the emergency managed care systems on a weekend where you know you're in an emergency. They question that and refuse you permission to go to an emergency room--two aspirins, get up in the morning, and give me a call type of thing. This is dangerous. This is dangerous. You just feel like you're not going to get good care; you're not going to get the care that's needed, because it's cost-effective. And I think some people see that in a way decisions about them living or dying is going to be made according to the almighty dollar.
KWAME HOLMAN: Cardin was joined by Maryland's senior Senator Democrat Paul Sarbanes. And while they spent most of the time bashing the Republicans' Medicare plan, they spent a little time talking about congressional Democrat plans that call for $89 billion in savings over the next seven years to keep Medicare solvent.
REP. BEN CARDIN: Now we've come up with an alternative that we're going to follow that deals with the solvency of the Medicare trust fund without costing you any more money and without jeopardizing your system. That's what we've done year after year.
ELDERLY WOMAN: (talking to Rep. Cardin) There's a certain concern that wants me to change my insurance from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to this H2 something or whatever it is.
KWAME HOLMAN: Many of the questions Dan Cardin and Nancy Johnson were asked this week were specific in nature, but the answers often were not.
REP. BEN CARDIN: Check with Renee in my office; she can probably help you.
MAN: (in audience) We're in Medicare and Blue Cross, but Medicare refuses to pay certain things; Blue Cross won't pick it up. Why?
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: Well, we think that through this new program--
KWAME HOLMAN: On Monday, both Johnson and Cardin will be back in Washington to work out the specifics, as the House Ways & Means Committee debates and takes the first vote on Medicare reform.
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: While at first the rhetoric will be kind of echoing some of the things you've heard, I would expect that at least half the amendments will be serious efforts to improve the bill.
KWAME HOLMAN: But finding common ground between Republicans and Democrats might be the easy part, because if and when Medicare reform is approved, members will have to go and sell it back home.
WOMAN: You mean that you would eliminate Medicare?
REP. NANCY JOHNSON: No, no. We won't. We'll keep Medicare.
KWAME HOLMAN: The seniors still have questions.