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Baucus touts reform to AARP members

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus told AARP members Tuesday that those who are worried that a health care overhaul would hurt their government benefits should know that even Medicare recipients would be helped under his plan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus told AARP members Tuesday that those who are worried that a health care overhaul would hurt their government benefits should know that even Medicare recipients would be helped under his plan.

The Montana Democrat is leading a Senate panel with two other Democrats and three Republicans that is working on a bill that Baucus says is better than more liberal offerings out of the House. He held a telephone town hall with nearly 10,000 AARP members who had a chance to ask some questions.

Many, even those generally supportive of reform efforts, said that changes could hurt health care programs many of the elderly rely upon.

Baucus told the group that his panel is, in general, trying to reduce the cost of health insurance, give tax credits to make sure lower income people can buy it and lower the overall cost of health care. They propose to pay for it with savings negotiated with the health care industry, cuts in federal spending and a tax on high-cost insurance policies.

Baucus said such changes will help make Medicare better, too. AARP officials on the call said they have yet to endorse any of the separate congressional plans.

"The thought here is that Medicare costs won't go up. In fact, they will go down," Baucus said, citing an overall decrease in health care costs compared with an unreformed system. "If we do nothing, the Medicare costs will continue to go up. That will hurt you, that will hurt me, that will hurt all Americans.

"What we are trying to do here is reduce a lot of waste that occurs. We have a wasteful system, in part because we pay doctors and hospitals, in part, on volume rather than quality."

Baucus reiterated several times that there would be few changes under his Senate plan to Medicare and Medicaid. He said more people would qualify for Medicaid because plans call for increasing the income eligibility limit.

The work of his bipartisan committee has drawn intense interest and scrutiny from the White House and beyond. Republicans on the panel have faced pressure to back out amid concerns from conservatives who think any of the plans spend too much money.

Baucus said he remains hopeful a compromise can be worked out within the next couple of weeks. Democratic leaders have said they want a plan by Sept. 15. If not, Baucus said, Democrats will have to pass a more limited bill through a parliamentary process that allows it to move forward with a simple majority.

Baucus also told the audience his plans call for eliminating Medicare copays for preventative medicine, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, in an effort to catch disease before it gets expensive. Baucus said the insurance industry is going along with the reform, even though their profits could be hit with new regulations because the number of enrollees will be increased.

"To be honest the resistance isn't as great as you think because the insurance industry feels the money they lose by denying preexisting conditions and such, they will make up for with every American having health insurance," Baucus said.

The senator said the plan will also spur competition in the insurance market, driving down some of those costs. At the same time, public programs like Medicare will prosper, he said.

"We're America. We are not Canada, we're not Great Britain. We are American, where there is a tradition of both public and private solutions to these problems," he said.