Couldn't Medicare less

Heads up, team; sneak play ahead. The deliriously misnamed Coalition to Save Medicare is about to join the national debate about health insurance programs for seniors. What we have here, hiding behind those Foster Grants, is a coalition of huge corporations and insurance companies out to loot Medicare to pay for corporate tax breaks. If the Coalition to Save Medicare is interested in saving Medicare, then we have gone Through the Looking-Glass. As the Red Queen said to Alice, "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Citizen Action, a consumer watchdog group, looked into the membership of this wondrous coalition and found therein not only the usual suspects--the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, both of which opposed Medicare from the beginning--but some nifty double disguises as well. Take the Alliance for Managed Care, which turns out to be the "nom de lobby" for Aetna, CIGNA, Prudential, and MetraHealth.

Also listed as a member of the Coalition to Save is the Healthcare Leadership Council, which sounds like something Hillary Clinton would join but happens to be the largest hospital corporations, insurance companies, and pharmaceutical companies. And you know how concerned the insurance companies are that we all have affordable health care.

All these corporations are in line to get the corporate tax breaks that Republicans are supporting and planning to pay for by cutting Medicare. Ah, but surely the Seniors Coalition --whose chief lobbyist, Jake Hansen, is co-chair of the Coalition to Save Medicare--would not support a raid on Medicare just to pay for a tax break for corporations. Would it?

According to Citizen Action, the New York attorney general investigated the Seniors Coalition along with other organizations in a network involved in "a pattern of fraud and abuse" (quoting The New York Times). According to PR Newswire, "The organization was fined by the Pennsylvania State Attorney General and forced to contribute $9,000 to a legitimate seniors' charity organization, the Pennsylvania Alzheimer's Association." According to The Washington Post, "The Seniors Coalition is barred from soliciting in the state of Maryland for failing to disclose financial data as required by law."

This is the group that House Speaker Newt Gingrich chose to meet with on April 28 to make a major policy speech on Medicare reform, bypassing the American Association of Retired Persons (33 million members) and the National Coalition of Senior Citizens (5 million members). The Seniors Coalition says it has 1 million members.

According to an article in The National Journal, the Seniors Coalition is one of three "seniors" groups--the others are the 60/Plus Association and the United Seniors Association--started with help from Richard Viguerie, the right-wing direct-mail king. Viguerie is notorious for trying to scare senior citizens into parting with their money.

United Seniors reported spending nearly $2.2 million on fund raising and $113,000 on lobbying in 1993. According to Associated Press reporter Jim Drinkard, the three groups mail out millions of solicitations to seniors attacking the AARP as liberal, and together, they raise about $18 million a year. USA sent out a letter earlier this year saying Congress was about to make "BILLION-dollar cuts in Medicare funding" and that donations were needed to pay for "intensive work by our team of lobbyists and legislative specialists."

The Seniors Coalition grew out of the Taxpayers Education Lobby, a conservative direct-mail group started by Dan C. Alexander, a former school board president from Mobile, Ala. This group supposedly supported school prayer and traditional values, but Alexander was convicted of extorting kickbacks on school construction projects.

While he served a four-year term, his wife, Faye, started the Seniors Coalition with Viguerie's help. For several years, the Coalition's president was the Alexanders' teen-age daughter.

So here these groups are, scaring seniors into giving money to save Medicare, while they support Republican efforts to take $270 billion out of Medicare.

Another one of the member organizations of the Coalition to Save is Citizens for a Sound Economy, which opposes government financing of health care. In January 1993, one of its publications stated: "The only viable long-term solution to the Medicare crisis lies in encouraging all Americans to save for their future health care needs."

And good luck to you in that endeavor. A friend of mine spent three days in the hospital earlier this summer with what turned out to be a bad stomach ache (she was advised not to eat peanuts anymore) and just got a bill for $15,000.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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Molly Ivins