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Health consumers make deficit fight personal

By Reuters
Tuesday, October 4, 2011 1:55 EDT
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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The numbers are devastating: almost 2,000 poor kids in Texas with cancer, another 18,000 with diabetes and more than 350,000 suffering from chronic lung disease, heart disease or stroke.

What sounds like a grim statistical report on poverty and disease is actually a lobbying message from Medicaid advocates to Texas congressman Jeb Hensarling, Republican co-chairman of a special congressional panel charged with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the U.S. deficit over 10 years.

The message is in a 14-page electronic brochure titled “Medicaid’s Impact in Texas,” sent to Hensarling and other Texas lawmakers by the health consumer advocacy group Families USA, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Diabetes Association and American Lung Association.

The aim is to remind Congress of the potential human toll from tens of billions of dollars in federal Medicaid spending cuts that the groups expect Hensarling and his fellow “super committee” members to consider in the coming weeks.

“We want to make sure members of the super committee feel a more personal connection to what Medicaid cuts would mean for people in their home states,” said Ron Pollack, executive director of the Families USA, which is spearheading the campaign.

Brochures for all 50 states and the District of Columbia are in production for a drive expected to continue into 2013, when the next Congress takes office.

TWEAKING THE CONSCIENCE

But that is not the only push to influence deficit talks by playing on the emotions of key politicians.

Hundreds of cancer patients, survivors and caregivers trooped into lawmakers’ offices on Capitol Hill last week to argue against any cuts that could harm their community. They have since fanned out across the country to lobby in home states and districts.

Religious leaders are also getting into the act. Beginning Tuesday, a coalition of Christians, Jews and Muslims called the Faithful Budget Campaign will hold weekly prayer vigils outside the U.S. Capitol to oppose cuts to Medicaid and other programs that benefit the poor.

The coalition plans a “super” vigil in November that will include simultaneous prayer services outside committee members’ home offices.

The efforts are part of a looming battle over deficit reduction between special-interest groups that represent millions of Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, and a healthcare industry that has poured more than $1 billion into federal campaign coffers over a period of decades, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign contributions.

The clash could have consequences for the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives in the 2012 elections, if cuts to the popular programs become a rallying cry for angry senior citizens and other impacted voters, analysts say.

Medicare and Medicaid are the government-run programs for the elderly and the poor, respectively, and together provide health coverage for about 100 million Americans.

“BLOODY WARFARE”

Doctors, hospitals, drug companies and insurers are fighting potential cuts that would harm their livelihoods, profit margins and revenues.

Many groups are promoting ideas that would shift the burden to the other side, from insurers who want future Medicare beneficiaries to pay more for services, to Medicare advocates who want a government-imposed lid on prescription drug prices.

A key concern for doctors, hospitals and other healthcare providers are prospects for cutbacks on Medicare payments for a sector that has seen successive cuts in Medicaid.

“It’s going to be bloody warfare to get another $1 billion, $2 billion, $3 billion out of us, out of other physicians, out of the hospitals,” said Cindy Moran, a former Republican Senate staffer who now lobbies for the American College of Radiology.

The super committee is due to send recommendations to Congress by November 23. Congress will vote on them by December 23.

Both sides are mounting huge grass-roots efforts. But consumer advocates have employed more high-profile tactics.

AARP, which represents 37 million older Americans, is running a multimillion-dollar TV ad opposing any cuts to Medicare and Social Security. The group is also encouraging people to record personal messages to the super committee.

A network of more than 340 organizations called the National Medicaid Coalition plans to have members phone lawmakers just before an October 14 deadline for congressional panels that deal with healthcare issues to submit deficit-cutting ideas to the super committee.

Healthcare lobbyists of all stripes agree that the best outcome would be a deadlock if Republicans remain unwilling to raise tax revenues. A deadlock would trigger automatic cuts that would spare Medicaid and impose only moderate reductions on Medicare.

“Our mantra is revenues first,” said Patricia Nemore of the Center for Medicare Advocacy.

But in case the panel reaches agreement, both sides are aggressively pushing ideas that would minimize the pain.

Where industry groups want Congress to raise the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 67, consumer advocates would lower the requirement to 55 so that younger, healthier people could add revenue to the program.

(Editing by Ross Colvin and Anthony Boadle)

Mochila insert follows.

Reuters
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