WASHINGTON -- After holding its fire all year, the nation's powerful seniors lobby is declaring war on the GOP's plan to overhaul Medicare, heralding a titanic fight over the future of the medical insurance program for America's 37 million elderly.
In a nationwide advertising and mailing blitz set to begin today, the American Association of Retired Persons plans an all-out assault on the Republican plan to reduce Medicare spending by $270 billion by the year 2002.
"We think $270 billion is too much and seven years is too fast," one top AARP official said Monday.
Precise details of AARP's campaign were not immediately available, in part because the group was still buying newspaper and broadcast ads around the country.
The high-profile drive also will feature mass mailings of "legislative alerts" to millions of AARP's most active members.
The campaign makes the 30 million-member AARP the first major lobbying organization to openly fight congressional Republicans, who have until now kept the powerful medical interest groups at bay on the issue of Medicare reform.
A looming question now is whether insurers, doctors and hospitals will follow AARP's gambit.
They all are now making their own calculations on the pros and cons of the Republican Medicare agenda, and soon must decide whether to support or oppose it.
While these interest groups like significant features of the GOP Medicare proposals, each also has some serious problems with other parts of those plans.
The dilemma faced by such organizations is no accident.
All year long, leaders of the Republican majority in Congress have played hardball with these groups, well aware that their howls of protest last year played a major role in bringing down the president's plan.
To keep the groups publicly silent, the GOP has used both the carrot and the stick -- promising them "sweeteners" while threatening to take the same away if the groups opposed change.
Hospitals, for instance, face a loss of $75 billion or more in Medicare funds over seven years -- "a real cut" that they say will drive some hospitals out of business. Yet the industry is delighted that the GOP proposals would enable hospitals to easily form their own "provider-sponsored networks," thus bypassing insurance companies and health maintenance organizations altogether.
The House Ways and Means Committee began work yesterday on marking up the 400-page Medicare bill proposed by the House Republicans.
Democrats alternated their denunciations of the bill with intricate questions about its details.
An angry Rep. Sam Gibbons, D-Fla., the ranking Democratic member of the committee, denounced the legislation as a "scam" and was rebuked repeatedly by the chairman, Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas. "I have no apology for being intemperate if I'm protecting the interests of 40 million people," Mr. Gibbons said.
GOP leaders hope to complete work on the Medicare legislation by tomorrow. It is being prepared by two committees, Ways and Means, and the House Commerce Committee.
The Senate Finance Committee has completed work on its version of the legislation.