150 local seniors applaud Medicare drug proposal; 'Town hall meeting' held by Cardin on plan to cover prescriptions


More than 150 seniors applauded enthusiastically yesterday as a Clinton Cabinet member and Maryland's two senators and an influential congressman from Baltimore called for an extension of the Medicare program to cover prescription drugs.

Donna E. Shalala, U.S. secretary of health and human services, told the seniors, "Medicare hasn't changed dramatically since 1965, when it was started as a hospital program. Prescription drugs are now a critical part of health coverage."

The occasion was a "town hall meeting" sponsored by Democratic Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin of Baltimore. He was joined at the podium -- and in support for prescription coverage -- by the state's two Democratic senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski.

The Clinton administration seeks to add universal prescription drug coverage to Medicare, which insures Americans over 65. Some Medicare HMOs cover prescriptions as an added benefit.

The initiative comes at a time when Medicare HMOs have been cutting back on prescription coverages. Another round of benefit cuts is expected next month, when HMOs and the federal government reach agreement on terms for next year.

Prescription drug costs have been rising at double-digit rates -- faster than any other component of health costs. With a federal surplus available, this session of Congress was the time to address a growing problem by insuring seniors for drugs, said Cardin. "HMOs are cutting back on their prescription coverage," he said. "Medigap policies are becoming more expensive."

Shalala said the administration's Medicare plan also calls for providing coverage for preventive services, such as mammograms, and using money from the surplus to shore up Medicare's solvency.

"The number of people coming into Medicare will double over the next 30 years," she said. "We need to invest some of the surplus to extend the life of the trust fund."

The audience, at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall in Southwest Baltimore, was composed largely of union retiree groups and advocacy organizations for seniors. Many supported the administration's Medicare drug proposal.

Frank Chase, a member of United Seniors of Maryland, said, "I hear from physicians: 'I used to worry that my patients would forget to take their medicine. Now I'm worried that they can't afford it.' "

Michael Vivito, president of the retirees club at Local 2101, Communication Workers of America, said, "As far as prescription drugs are concerned, some of our members take as many as 15 drugs a day, and they can hardly afford it."

In addition to the seniors, officials from several health care providers complained to Shalala that cuts in Medicare reimbursements put programs in jeopardy. Shalala responded that the government had been trying to control costs, but "in some areas we cut too much. We need to go back through and make some corrections."

Pub Date: 9/28/99

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