Healthcare reform has turned into a roller derby, AARP says

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The politics of healthcare reform is getting rougher as congressional leaders seek to combine two bills in the Senate and three in the House, says the political chief for AARP, the lobbying group for seniors.

“I feel a little bit as though this is now roller derby – very fast, lots of people, lots of elbows. And people are playing for keeps,” says Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president of AARP, a 40 million member political powerhouse.

“Every group is now assessing what is in these various packages and what must be there for them at the end of the day," LeaMond said, speaking at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters.

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'The most partisan issue in recent memory'

One third of AARP members are Republicans, one-third Democrats, and one-third independents. Extensive polling among members shows healthcare “is the most partisan issue we have seen in recent memory,” LeaMond says.

When the Senate Finance Committee passed a health-reform measure Tuesday, only one Republican voted for it: Olympia Snowe of Maine. But the lack of Republican votes was politics, not policy, says John Rother, AARP’s executive vice president and strategy chief.

The Senate Finance bill “is modeled very heavily on initiatives that were sponsored by two Republican governors – Gov. [Mitt] Romney of Massachusetts [and] Gov. [Arnold] Schwarzennegger in California. When you look at this bill in historical terms, it is a Republican bill. It is an individual-mandate bill based on competition in the private sector. That has been the Republican approach to health reform for a long time.”

AARP caught in the middle

The battle over health reform is forcing AARP to juggle the divergent interests of two key portions of its membership. “We are hearing different things from the different segments,” LeaMond said.  “Over 65, most of what we are hearing is: ‘Are you protecting Medicare?’ To which our answer is, 'Yes.'”

Those who have not yet retired have a different set of issues. “The 50 to 64 years olds [are] absolutely, maniacally focused on affordability,” of health reform measures, LeaMond said. “They are in our polling – in our discussions – the most anxious group … and it is especially true with women in that particular age group which is very, very concerned.”

Medicare's woes

Medicare faces major financial problems, including unfunded obligations of $38 trillion and forecasts that the program’s costs will absorb an increasing share of the federal budget. The healthcare reform measures Congress is now considering will not solve those larger problems, Mr. Rother said.

“The way I would characterize this legislation is it gets us started and it puts some tools into place. But how well it achieves any of those cost containment goals … will depend entirely on how those tools are applied, how widespread they are used, whether the tools created within Medicare are also used in the private sector,” he said. “I don’t think we will have the answer to that for several years.”

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