Business & Lobbying

AARP, Dems lobby older voters on healthcare law before midterms

The AARP, the Obama administration and lawmakers are trying
to convince skeptical older voters of the benefits of healthcare legislation
before they go to the polls in November.

Their strategy involves selling seniors on the enhanced
prescription drug and prevention benefits and easing their worries over the future
of Medicare.

{mosads}Opinion polling has shown older voters who favored Sen. John
McCain (R-Ariz.) over President Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential contest
to be the most dubious about healthcare reform.

A Gallup poll released two weeks ago found just 36 percent
of people 65 or older thought the healthcare law is a “good thing,” compared to
54 percent who said it is a “bad thing.”

Older voters tend to be a reliable presence at the polls,
and Democrats are trying to stave off losses in both chambers of Congress.

Republican criticisms of Democrats using nearly $500 billion
in Medicare spending cuts to finance new coverage for the uninsured fueled
seniors’ anxiety. And the GOP has vowed to make healthcare reform an election
issue.

“We’re going to have an environment that off and on will be
politically charged,” said Nancy LeaMond, executive vice president for social
impact at the AARP. “Our hope is that the environment will be more conducive to
talking about the facts, though we know there are going to be attempts to scare
our members.”

“Negative messages always seem to break through more than
positive ones,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), part of Speaker Nancy
Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) leadership team, said in an interview last week.

About one-third of the residents in Wasserman Schultz’s
South Florida district are older than 60, according to her office. “They’ve
been sold a bill of goods by opponents of this legislation,” she said.

Like other Democratic lawmakers who supported the healthcare
legislation, Wasserman Schultz plans a multifaceted campaign to promote the
law’s benefits for older people: “Outreach, outreach, outreach,” she said.

In addition to distributing direct mail packets explaining
the law to households, Wasserman Schultz will participate in a series of town
hall meetings, some of which will focus on senior issues, and visits to seniors
centers and similar facilities. Underscoring the challenges involved, Wasserman
Schultz encountered some hostility at a townhall meeting she hosted Monday
night.

To counter the anti-healthcare reform message, Obama and his
allies are highlighting the new or improved benefits under the law.

“I want seniors to know, despite some of the stuff that’s
been said out there, these reforms don’t cut into your guaranteed benefits,”
Obama said last week. “What they do is eliminate co-payments and deductibles
for preventive care, like checkups and mammograms. You will be getting those
for free now.”

Perhaps the biggest selling point for Medicare beneficiaries
is the gradual phasing-out of the so-called doughnut hole coverage gap that is
currently part of the Medicare Part D drug benefit; this year, beneficiaries
who fall into the gap will receive a $250 rebate.

“We think that closing the doughnut hole over time is going
to be exceedingly important,” LeaMond said.

In addition, advocates of the law are trumpeting enhanced
prevention and wellness benefits such as a free annual physical and expanded
access to home- and community-based medical and assisted-living services.

“This is the part where we have to be able to explain to our
members the specifics as it applies to them,” LeaMond said. “We’re going to
have to move very quickly from a lot of general or even hypothetical questions
to very specific case questions.”

AARP publications, such as its bulletins and monthly
magazine, go to tens of millions of people and the organization has vast
financial, technological and grassroots networks through which to disseminate
information.

The AARP has also launched a website dubbed “Get the
Facts” and a question-and-answer column to provide members with information
about the law.

“AARP will use all of our communication channels — from
our publications and website to in-person events — to make sure that our members
and all older Americans have reliable information about what they can expect —
and how they can benefit — from healthcare reform,” AARP Senior Vice President
Drew Nannis said in a statement Wednesday.

The most obvious potential short-term drawback for seniors
is the possibility of cutbacks in the Medicare Advantage program, through which
private insurance plans offer plans.

The healthcare law significantly scales back the federal
subsidies available to Medicare Advantage plans that make them cost, on
average, 12 percentage points more per beneficiary than traditional Medicare.
Democrats have been chipping away at these subsidies, which they dub
“overpayments,” since 2007. The new law would gradually reduce the subsidies to
the same amount it would cost to enroll someone in traditional Medicare.

Republican proponents of the private Medicare Advantage
plans, as well as the insurance companies that provide them, maintain that
slashing the subsidies will result in many plans exiting the market, reducing
benefits or raising premiums. The Congressional Budget Office partly backs up
this contention, concluding that 1.5 million fewer people will be covered by
Medicare Advantage plans by 2019.

The law is having an effect on the Medicare Advantage market
already: The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced Monday that
the rates for the plans would freeze next year at 2010 levels.

The Medicare Advantage market will be going through a shift
in the coming years, acknowledged Alfred Chiplin, senior policy attorney at the
Center for Medicare Advocacy, but not in all geographic areas and not all at
once.

“You’ve got bits and pieces that go into effect in time,”
Chiplin said. “There’s going to be a lot of jockeying around.”

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