Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gazing into the future

America Wants To Know brought out the fringed tablecloth and the crystal ball today and summoned our in-house Gypsy fortune-teller to answer a question about health care reform.

"What is it this time?" Madame Lyubitshka asked irritably. Gypsy fortune-tellers hate to be called away on poker night.

"I have an image in my mind," America Wants To Know said, "of Congressman Dan Rostenkowski. I see him surrounded by angry senior citizens who are pounding his car with sticks and umbrellas."

"I see," said the Gypsy.

"Can you track that down?" we asked.

Madame Lyubitshka seated herself at the little round table and passed her hands slowly over the crystal ball. "Yes," she said after a moment. "There he is."

Flickering in the glass was an image of the venerable Illinois congressman in his car, surrounded by a crowd of about a hundred senior citizens. They were jeering. Faintly we could hear shouts of "Liar, liar," "Chicken, chicken," and "We won't forget at election time."

Some of the seniors surrounded the congressman's car and briefly prevented him from driving away, pounding on the hood and the windows in anger.

"Where is he?" we asked.

Madame Lyubitshka peered into the crystal. "The Copernicus Center," she said. "Right in the middle of his district in Chicago. He was meeting privately with six senior-citizen groups and these people were waiting to speak with him. He promised to talk with them after the meeting, but instead he just ran for his car."

"What did they want to speak to him about?"

The Gypsy moved her hand over the crystal ball and stared deeply into the glass. "The new catastrophic care benefit in Medicare," she said. "They are very angry because they were asked to pay something for it. Come, see for yourself."

It was all there in the crystal. It was August, 1989. Congress had passed the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988 to provide insurance for catastrophic illnesses and long-term nursing care. Eligible seniors were asked to pay a premium ranging from $4 per month to $800 per year, depending on income. And all hell broke loose when the government tried to collect.

"Sen. John McCain said he recognized the brewing backlash a year ago--after he got 30,000 responses to a questionnaire in which sentiment ran more than 3-to-1 against a catastrophic-insurance bill that was sailing through Congress with bipartisan support," the Gypsy read from a reflection inside the glass.

"When was this?" we asked.

"September 17, 1989," Madame Lyubitshka read. "This is a story by Dan Balz in the Washington Post."

"Read some more," we urged.

"Other members began to sense something was wrong earlier this year, then wrote off the anger to a few greedy old folks," she read, "But when House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski was surrounded by jeering senior citizens during the August recess, everyone on Capitol Hill knew they had a problem they could not avoid. Chalk up another victory to the power of the elderly."

"Is there more?" we asked.

"You know the rest," Madame Lyubitshka said. "The catastrophic care benefit was repealed by Congress because the people who were eligible for the benefit didn't want to pay for it. They wanted everybody else to pay for it."

"Do you mean to tell me that the health care benefit was actually passed by Congress and signed into law, and then as soon as people found out it was going to cost them money, Congress was forced to repeal it? After all that work and effort? How could that happen?"

Madame Lyubitshka appeared to fall into a trance. "We call Dan Rostenkowski," she wailed in a tremulous voice. She lifted her hand. There was a cell phone in it. "Area code 773-276-5575," she said. "He's out of jail now. He'll explain it to you."

Copyright 2009