Bennet challenges McCain on Medicare provisions in health care bill

Sen. Michael Bennet is emerging as a leader in the health care reform effort. Resisting pressure from Sen. John McCain, Bennet stood up for health care reform, reassuring Colorado seniors that Medicare benefits are not threatened by the bill.

Days before the Senate voted on a McCain amendment to return the bill to the Finance Committee, McCain began a campaign of robocalls urging Colorado seniors to pressure Bennet to support his amendment, “if you want to keep Medicare from getting cut.”

“I introduced the first Republican amendment to the massive health care bill,” McCain’s automated call said. It “would send the bill back to the Finance Committee and stop the Democrats from cutting $500 billion of vital Medicare coverage for our seniors.”

The targeted Medicare cuts are essential to Democratic plans to extend health insurance to 31 million uninsured Americans. Sending the bill back to the Finance Committee would have effectively killed health care reform.

Democrats say savings will come from reducing costs through efficiency rather than from cuts in “vital Medicare services,” as charged by McCain.

Subsidies to insurance companies and to some institutions that provide services to the medical profession would be cut. Waste and fraud will also be targeted to reduce unnecessary costs.

While the claim that the current Senate health care bill will cut primary Medicare benefits is demonstrably false, according to a CBO analysis, this charge has been a bedrock Republican talking point. They have used this charge to alarm seniors concerned their Medicare benefits may be reduced.

Democratic senators accused Republican critics of making false claims about potential harm to Medicare during the debate. “Only in Washington,” Bennet said, “could an effort to extend the life of the Medicare trust fund be viewed or distorted somehow as being unfair or bad for seniors.”

Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, assured seniors, “Our bill does nothing to reduce guaranteed Medicare benefits.”

“These Washington tactics of trying to ship health care reform back to some committee to languish is exactly why nothing gets done around here,” Bennet said.

When McCain’s effort to return the bill to the Finance Committee failed by a vote of 58-42, Bennet introduced his own “message amendment” to explain “in the clearest, most unambiguous of terms ... that nothing in this bill will cut guaranteed Medicare benefits. All guaranteed Medicare benefits stay intact for every senior in Colorado and all across the country.”

The second part of Bennet’s amendment pledged to “further protect and strengthen Medicare” by extending the life of the Medicare trust fund. The bill also commits to lower premiums or cost sharing, increased benefits, and improved access to Medicare providers.

Led by the AARP, numerous groups representing seniors endorsed the amendment. AARP said, “This amendment is definitive proof that 45 million Americans will continue to receive all of the guaranteed benefits that they rely on. We strongly urge every senator who wants to protect his or her constituents in Medicare to support this amendment.”

Bennet’s amendment passed the Senate 100-0.

For Democrats, it was an easy vote, since all the provisions protected by Bennet’s amendment were already in the current Democratic health care bill.

Republican senators, McCain included, still insist the Democrats cannot meet their goals without cutting Medicare benefits. They will continue their same talking points, but the assurances included in the Bennet amendment seriously undercut their position.

In this contest of amendments, Bennet emerges as a leader with an innovative bipartisan agreement that moves the health care debate “on to the substantive aspects of the bill.” He also weakened a major GOP talking point against health care reform.

While McCain comes across as an obstructionist willing to manipulate the fears of seniors, Bennet offers a way forward to a debate on the merits of the bill.

As an emerging leader in the health care reform debate, Bennet is establishing a strong record to run on in 2010. If he can convince seniors that their benefits under Medicare are protected in the health care reform bill, he will be a formidable opponent in either a primary or the general election.


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