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Medicare Commission Has Tough Task

March 7, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The members of a new Medicare reform commission showed little unity at their first meeting.

``There’s nobody around this table who doesn’t have strong views,″ said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, at the gathering Friday.

The 17-member commission has one year to come up with a plan to save Medicare from being overwhelmed by the 77 million baby boomers who will retire beginning in little more than a decade.

Congress and President Clinton would then take over, considering whether any of the commission’s recommendations should be enacted into law. Clinton has said he would like to see lawmakers overhaul Medicare before his second term is over in 2001.

``Like other great programs, we find it now needs some attention, but the basic structure is sound. The basic idea is good,″ said commission member Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who was serving in Congress when Medicare was created in 1965.

But Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, argued that as an entitlement, Medicare spending it out of control.

``We never vote on the amount we’re spending. Clearly things have to change,″ he said.

The commission on Medicare’s future, which includes private-sector experts as well as lawmakers, is intended to build early bipartisan consensus to avoid legislative deadlock later. Not just a majority, but 11 out of 17 commissioners must agree on the group’s final recommendations.

``No one will dispute we have a very difficult task ahead of us,″ said the commission’s chairman, Sen. John Breaux, D-La.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., argued that the commission must recognize that people will not control their own use of Medicare services.

``People will consume as much health care as other people are willing to pay for, and what we have to do is structure a system and a process that will recognize that fact,″ said Thomas, who chairs the House committee with oversight of Medicare and will share commission leadership duties with Breaux.

Samuel H. Howard, chairman of Phoenix Healthcare Corp. of Nashville, Tenn., said Medicare could save a lot of money simply by being more efficient.

``I want to ask us to explore some other systems ... that do not breed waste, fraud and abuse,″ Howard said.

The commissioners agreed Friday that they will all meet at least six times before reporting to Congress and the president by March 1, 1999. Three smaller task forces will get together more frequently.

Many also agreed they should find ways to get the public involved in their deliberations. For example, the commissioners may use two-way video conferencing to link some of their meetings with public gatherings or experts outside Washington, and take trips.

``I deal with people every day with Medicare problems,″ said Illene Gordon, a commissioner who handles constituents’ Medicare cases in the Jackson, Miss., office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

``I intend to bring these problems the table.″

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