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Murray's on a Medicare mission

By ELIZABETH CIEPIELA

Staff writer

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray spoke to senior citizens in Auburn Monday, just one stop on her statewide campaign to improve what she argued was last year’s damaging Medicare prescription drug act.

The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act, signed into law by the president last December, is fundamentally flawed and damaging, Murray told the audience at the Auburn Senior Center.

Yet there’s still time to minimize the damage and improve the law before it takes effect in 2006, the Washington Democrat said.

Recalling her elderly parents’ struggles with obtaining much-needed healthcare, Murray said her top priority today is supporting legislation that makes healthcare more affordable and more accessible for the low-income, children, veterans, the disabled and the elderly.

She alluded to the Medicare act of 2003, narrowly passed by Congress. The law proposes a major overhaul of the prescription drug portion of the national Medicare program — one that will adversely affect seniors when the law is enacted in three years, Murray said.

“It’s clear that this new prescription drug law does not meet my standards, and that’s why I voted against it,” Murray told the seniors.

“I see Medicare as a success. It’s a solid foundation to protect seniors. Coupled with Social Security, Medicare is the most important anti-poverty program ever,” she said.

But the new law makes effective healthcare coverage difficult for seniors by overhauling the old Medicare system, she said. Education, coupled with action, can help improve the law before it takes effect in 2006, she added.

Murray said the law makes three “dramatic” changes to Medicare.

First, before the law was signed, Medicare treated all seniors the same, regardless of income, area of residency or how sick they were.

The new law will change that.

“Now seniors will pay different amounts — and get different benefits — depending on how sick they are and where they live,” Murray said.

Second, Medicare benefits under the new law will be means-tested for the first time. “Depending on your income and assets, you might not get the same benefits as other seniors,” Murray said.

And finally, the law will put for-profit companies in charge of administering drug benefits. These companies “are primarily concerned with their bottom line,” Murray said.

“I think it’s wrong to leave thousands of Washington seniors without help. You deserve better. And under the new law, you cannot buy any supplemental coverage to protect yourself” from large gaps in coverage plans, she said. “So you get stuck with the bills, and you can’t even protect yourself. I think that’s wrong, and I know seniors deserve better.”

Murray also has a problem with some of the “unkowns” under the new law.

The ones she highlighted include:

• The cost of premiums and deductibles under the new plan are unkown.

• Whether private companies will be able to offer affordable plans is unknown.

• Seniors might not retain their current retiree health benefits.

• Unknown is whether seniors will be forced into a restrictive HMO, whether seniors’ current prescription drugs will be covered and whether a senior can keep his or her current physician.

“We don’t know the answer to these questions, and I wasn’t comfortable voting for a bill with all these critical questions unanswered,” Murray said.

It’s not too late to educate seniors and attempt to improve the law, she said.

“She’s been going around the state talking to seniors about what’s in the bill. She doesn’t want to repeal the bill, but she wants to make it better,” said Murray’s spokeswoman, Alex Glass.

So what can be done?

Murray proposed raising seniors’ awareness about the new law through pamphlets and editorials and urging seniors to tell the White House and Congress that the new law has problems.

“Right now they think it’s perfect,” she said. “They’re going to be traveling around the country telling you how great it is. They won’t admit that this bill will hurt our seniors and undermine the protection that Medicare guarantees.”

Murray said she’ll lead the fight in Congress to improve the law.

“I’m not going to sit back and let this bad law hurt the seniors I represent. I’m going to fight with everything I’ve got to make it better, and I’m going to need your help,” Murray said.

Murray’s six-year term in the Senate expires this year. She’s up for re-election this November.

Staff writer Elizabeth Ciepiela: 925-5565, eciepiela@fedwaymirror.com

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