Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

November 13, 2009

Donnelly drops by North Woods

Rep takes seniors’ questions on health care

By SCOTT SMITH

Fresh from the landmark House health care reform bill vote, U.S. Rep. Joe Donnelly stopped by Kokomo’s North Woods Commons Friday to defend his position.

Assuring about 30 seniors that he had indeed read the 1,900-page bill, Donnelly said the legislation won’t change Medicare, and said the bill will end up reducing the federal deficit.

In addition, Donnelly said, the bill will, by the end of its 10-year lifespan, close the “doughnut hole” in Medicare Part D, the out-of-pocket expenses many seniors must pay for prescription drugs.

“In 2019, when some of you are in your 50s,” Donnelly joked, drawing a laugh, “the doughnut hole will be completely eliminated.”

He was accompanied on his visit by Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight, who praised Donnelly’s vote as “courageous,” and by June Lyle, state director of the Indiana chapter of the American Association of Retired Persons.

“This bill does benefit seniors,” Donnelly said. “It does not cut Medicare Advantage — it changes how it’s paid for. Before, the insurance companies were charging about a 20 percent premium. Now they’ll be charging about 12 percent. That [savings] can now go toward health care, and to make sure the bill is completely funded.”

Donnelly acknowledged the bill faces a tough road in the U.S. Senate, saying he expects the Senate to vote on its own version some time in the spring.

“They will work on the bill, and I think they’ll make an even better bill,” Donnelly said.

The congressman said he received an avalanche of communication from constituents prior to last Saturday’s vote. His vote helped the bill narrowly pass, 220-215. Only one Republican supported the bill, and 39 Democrats voted against it.

Without naming names, Donnelly was critical of both “cable news” and commercials sponsored by groups against the bill.

“If you see TV commercials, the best thing to do is turn off the TV and read a book,” Donnelly said, adding that a woman in Logansport told him she couldn’t sleep after watching some cable news coverage.

“It’s not really news; they just have a point of view and they follow it,” Donnelly said. “I said, ‘turn off the TV and listen to a Frank Sinatra record.’”

Commons resident Arlene Perkins asked Lyle why the AARP endorsed the bill shortly before the vote, noting the AARP didn’t support an earlier version of the legislation.

Lyle said one reason was that the AARP wanted to narrow the gap between the premiums insurers charge young people, and the premiums they can charge seniors.

She praised closing the doughnut hole, which Donnelly said will be done through pharmaceutical companies agreeing to discount medication to individuals with Medicare Part D coverage.

And she said under the House bill, insurers will only be able to charge older Americans up to twice what they charge someone in their early 20s.

Goodnight tried to bring the issue down to the local level by explaining that one-fifth of the city’s annual budget — mainly paid for through property taxes — goes toward paying health care benefits for city employees.

“A lot of people want to protect the status quo,” Goodnight said. “But it has been the number one issue over the past 10 years. We’ve had to put so much attention toward escalating health care costs that we’ve not been able to do things we need to do — like invest in equipment and our infrastructure.”

The audience members were frank in their questions: after Donnelly said he’d read the bill, Goodnight noted that one of his kids has read thousands of pages of Harry Potter novels. Goodnight was trying to suggest reading the bill wasn’t the task some have made it out to be.

“Those Harry Potter books are a lot less expensive than that bill,” one resident replied.

“That would depend on if you were someone who didn’t have health care,” Goodnight replied back.

Donnelly said perhaps the biggest benefit of reform, if it passes, will be the end of insurers denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

He noted, as he has in past public forums, that he has a daughter with severe rheumatoid arthritis, who requires expensive medication to keep her joints flexible. At one point, Donnelly said, it wasn’t possible to obtain health insurance for her.

“Like a lot of Americans, we were playing Russian Roulette. We were one bad health incident away from being bankrupted,” he said.

• Scott Smith is a Kokomo Tribune staff writer. He may be reached at 765-454-8569 or via e-mail at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com