updated 5/20/2004 2:45:12 PM ET 2004-05-20T18:45:12

Eugene Obermier takes eight pills a day and a dim view of the new Medicare law, with its prescription drug benefit.

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"I think it stinks," said the 78-year-old retired automobile service manager from Maryland City who has a bad heart, high blood pressure and other health issues. He gets prescription drugs through his wife's state health plan.

But after taking part in an hourlong town meeting hosted by Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Md., a vocal opponent of the Medicare overhaul, Obermier said he does not really understand the complicated law and how it might affect him and his wife.

That reaction has been common in lawmakers' meetings with older Americans and in queries to interest groups such as AARP. They find the law too confusing to be able to say whether they like it, according to both its supporters and detractors.

The Republican administration and AARP are undertaking intensive campaigns to explain the law before a negative impression takes root among the 40 million older and disabled Americans on Medicare.

The Health and Human Services Department is working on a letter from Secretary Tommy Thompson to older people next month to explain the law. In addition, HHS officials are being made available to Republican lawmakers for public meetings on the law, said Greg Crist, a spokesman for House Republicans.

"There is a curiosity which could lead to confusion unless we act," Crist said.

In Georgia, Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey, a physician who voted for the overhaul, said he has made some headway among older constituents who have attended his public meetings about Medicare.

"They have heard a lot of Medi-scare rhetoric about being forced out of Medicare and losing prescription drug benefits they already have," Gingrey said. "It has been an educational task of mine to make sure they understand the truth as opposed to the rhetoric."

The competing meetings and public relations efforts serve almost as a continuation of the partisan debate in Congress on the legislation.

President Bush and his allies tell people the drug benefit is voluntary. "If you don't want to change your current coverage, you don't have to change," Bush said when he signed the bill this month.

But Cardin argued strenuously that it is not voluntary, stressing that the Congressional Budget Office predicts that 2.7 million people will lose the more generous drug benefits they have from former employers.

"Public opinion, the jury is still out," Cardin told the dozen or so older people at the Resurrection Catholic Church in Laurel.

Cardin said he wants them to understand what the law says so they can make informed decisions. But he offered a critical presentation that appeared to reinforce doubts about it.

"It's got a lot of flaws in it," said LaVonne Hanlon, 65, of nearby Maryland City.

At AARP, which endorsed the legislation as it progressed through Congress, representatives have received a steady stream of questions _ 45,000 phone calls and 40,000 e-mails _ from some of the group's 35 million members.

"Our members are confused about the provisions in the legislation," said Ava Baker, the organization's director of member service.

Baker said the questions have focused on how the law affects current coverage, particularly retiree benefits, and whether older people "would have to give up traditional Medicare and switch over" to a health maintenance organization.

On its Web site, AARP provides answers, saying the law "strengthens, not undermines Medicare" and provides $88 billion in subsidies to employers "to ensure that people who have good private coverage do not lose it."

Both sides recognize that the size and complexity of the law add to the confusion. On some issues, even the law's proponents misread some provisions or disagree about what is in it.

Bill Davis, 76, of Odenton attended Cardin's meeting with handouts from the Maryland Republican Party. Davis said he would take advantage of a provision allowing people to put money in tax-free health savings accounts. The new law, however, says people over 65 cannot contribute to the new accounts.

AARP also says older people will not be able to purchase supplemental insurance to offset their deductibles and drug copayments when the new Medicare drug benefit begins in 2006. But at a briefing for reporters to explain the legislation, Republican congressional aides who helped draft the legislation said insurers could offer such enhanced benefits.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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