Health Care Perspectives, Part I

Published 12:26 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dale Odegaard wants to see something come out of Washington.

Odegaard is in his 70s, is a long-time Austin resident and an active AARP member. He is also strongly in favor of health care reform.

Reform is making its way slowly through the Congressional pipeline. After the Senate passed its health care bill on Christmas Eve day, the stage was set for meetings between both houses of Congress to work on producing a singular bill that President Barack Obama will presumably sign. Those meetings are expected to ratchet up next week.

Many senior citizens, like Odegaard, will likely follow the process closely as they have many vested interests in the legislation. Changes to Medicare are chief among these, but concerns over long-term care and insurance for younger family members play a role as well.

But as is the case with the entire population, seniors are far from unanimous in their support. AARP, which counts 40 million people 50 and older as members, has endorsed the House bill and supports reform generally. However, some polls show that seniors are generally opposed to the current reform plans, possibly more so than any other age group.

Whatever ultimately transpires in Washington — whether seniors show support or not — will have a big impact on Mower County, which has a substantial elderly population.

Some show support

Odegaard has been an AARP member for more than 20 years, and since 2003, he’s worked as a volunteer citizen lobbyist pushing for health care reform.

That duty has taken him to the Capitol in St. Paul for talks with legislators, as well as to various other meetings in the state.

Odegaard said he got so heavily involved because the issues are very pertinent to him — Odegaard is on Medicare, and he wants to see change, specifically in how drug costs are assessed.

The retiree also feels strongly that all citizens should have access to health insurance, a nod to the so-called “public option” being discussed by Congress.

“My personal belief is that something has to be done with this health system,” Odegaard said.

AARP as a whole agrees with him. In November, the organization announced its endorsement of the House health care bill. AARP Chief Executive A. Barry Rand said the legislation would prevent insurance companies from denying people over 50 coverage.

“Millions of Americans will start to regain control over their lives,” Rand said in a press release.

The organization has not endorsed the Senate bill in the same way, but it has still shown support. In a statement after the Senate’s Christmas Eve vote, AARP State Director Michele Kimball said, “This morning the Senate brought us closer to meaningful health care reform than we have ever been before. ”

Amy McDonough, communications director for AARP in Minnesota, said the organization is going to push for specific measures as the bill works its way through conference committee. These include eliminating the so-called prescription medication “donut hole,” which leaves seniors paying over a certain amount for drugs uncovered, as well as a stipulation that seniors won’t get charged drastically higher rates than younger people.

McDonough said AARP also supports the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act, which would create a federal insurance program for people looking at long-term care options. The CLASS Act could find its way into the final bill, though McDonough called it the “little engine” and acknowledged it might get cut.

“Definitely yes we support the CLASS Act,” McDonough said.

McDonough said ultimately that AARP will work diligently to get favorable legislation passed.

“All along, we’ve been supportive of passing health care reform,” she said.

…but others don’t

However, AARP’s support does not tell the whole story. Polls, such as one from Quinnipiac University released in early December, show people 55 and older as the least supportive of health care reform.

That poll indicates that only 30 percent of people in the age group support the proposed changes being discussed by Congress. By comparison, people 18 to 34 support reform by a slim 53 percent majority.

And seniors’ low level of support has been reflected in national polls and reports dating back to the summer. In August, the Washington Post reported that “senior citizens are emerging as a formidable obstacle to President Obama’s ambitious health care reform plans.”

In fact, the Post noted, “the discontent in the powerful and highly organized voting bloc” had gotten to such a level that the administration was “scrambling to devise a strategy to woo the elderly.”

Charles Mills, a 72-year-old Austin resident, is one such senior opposed to the current reform plan.

Mills is quick to point out that he is not against the idea of reform generally. However, he thinks the pending legislation now in front of Congress is too big and will cost too much.

Instead, Mills said he would like to see Congress go slower with health care reform, perhaps trying one small change before going ahead with others.

“I think we need some reform,” he said, “but not to this scale.”

Mills, who used to be an AARP member, said the organization is driven by profits, not the best interests of older Americans. The retiree said he has many friends who are just as opposed to the current reform plans, and he doesn’t understand why AARP would support Congress.

“I perceive it as a majority of seniors who don’t support (the proposed legislation),” Mills said.

Mills said some simple changes, like allowing insurance to be sold across state lines, should be implemented. But he’s leery of drastically altering the system.

“I feel we’re sitting in a very precarious position,” Mills said.

McDonough said it is natural that some of AARP’s 40 million members won’t support the legislation. But she said some earlier polls were based on “bad information” and that as seniors learned more about how Medicare would be affected by the proposals, their opinions changed.

According to the AARP, “strong majorities” of members in early November reported that key provisions, such as closing the “donut hole,” were convincing reasons to support the legislation.

Ultimately, McDonough said the organization is trying to get a broad base of support.

“We have been working throughout the debate to dispel several of the myths that have warped the health care reform debate,” she said in an e-mail. “We want to make sure those differences of opinion are based on facts, not myths designed to derail a long overdue effort to fix what’s wrong in our health care system.”