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RETREAT FROM HEALTH PLAN SHOWS SENIOR CITIZEN CLOUT

SHARE RETREAT FROM HEALTH PLAN SHOWS SENIOR CITIZEN CLOUT

With its lopsided 360-66 vote this week, the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged that it made a bad mistake last year in approving expanded Medicare catastrophic health insurance for senior citizens.

The abrupt turnabout was a startling reversal of legislation that was passed with much fanfare only a year ago amid boasts that it was the most significant expansion in two decades of Medicare.That much was true, but like all social programs, it carried a high price tag. The law increased Medicare premiums on a sliding scale with a surtax of up to $800 a year for the more well-to-do elderly. When the bill came due, the uproar from outraged senior citizens nearly blew a surprised Congress away.

It was particularly surprising since the program had been backed by President Ronald Reagan, had heavy congressional support, and had been promoted by the senior citizens' own influential lobby - AARP, American Association of Retired Persons. The AARP apparently badly misjudged its own members on this one.

The hasty retreat by the House - all kinds of similar legislation are pending in the Senate - shows at least two things:

1. The catastrophic care plan was one of those federal programs that sound good but are expensive. Most of the time, the cost of such social undertakings is simply added to the federal budget. The federal deficit then sinks into even more red ink, but Congress basks in "doing good" and the beneficiaries are grateful.

It did not work like that this time. The potential users - the elderly - were asked to pay and were suddenly confronted with the hard truth about the costs. Only one in five might benefit, yet all would have to pay. The ones who would have to pay the most already had similar - or better - coverage through private insurance.

Maybe if other federal programs were required to have immediate, identifiable tax hikes attached to them to pay for the benefits, the nation would have fewer programs and less debt.

2. The outburst by senior citizens demonstrated in a dramatic way the growing power of this class of society. They tend to be articulate, organized, well-connected, able and willing to write and call elected officials, and have solid reputations as voters. If it didn't pay enough attention before, Congress certainly will do so now.

However, members of Congress should not let this experience stampede them into becoming lackeys for the elderly. The nation has many other needs and senior citizens already draw more than half of the money from all federal entitlements.

As senior citizens make up an ever-larger segment of the total population, their voices in Congress will become even more powerful. But Congress must resist the pressure to pour a disproportionate share of the nation's resources into programs for the elderly - programs that younger working people will have to finance.

The federal debt already has mortgaged much of the future of America's children and grandchildren. New programs are going to have to pay their own way and not add to that future burden.