The day after the American Association of Retired Persons embraced the two major health-care bills being pushed by the Democratic leadership in Congress, the phones in Republican Sen. John McCain's office were ringing off the hook.
Calls were pouring in from senior citizens in McCain's home state of Arizona, telling him they didn't agree with the AARP's eleventh-hour endorsement. A McCain staffer estimates the calls were running 9-to-1 against AARP, while other senators reported similar scenarios in their offices.For McCain, the telephone tie-up was a ringing example of a lobby "grossly out of touch" with its membership - not to mention deja vu.
He was front and center the last time AARP's members rebelled against their national leaders. Back then, the revolt sparked the sudden repeal of a law that President Ronald Reagan once hailed for helping to "remove a terrible threat from the lives of elderly and disabled Americans": the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act.
On July 1, 1988, Reagan signed the act, which expanded Medicare coverage to include catastrophic illness, paying for it with a "supplemental premium" borne primarily by affluent beneficiaries.
Less than 17 months later, after an unprecedented wave of protests from angry senior citizens, Congress repealed the act. Today - five years after this dramatic turnabout - several lobbyists, congressional staffers and even lawmakers themselves are beginning to wonder aloud if this pattern is doomed to repeat itself in the current debate.
Like the current debate, the fight for catastrophic coverage began with a simple idea that rapidly grew more complex.
Otis Ray Bowen, Reagan's secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, wanted to limit Medicare beneficiaries' out-of-pocket costs to $2,000 per year for hospital and doctor bills and to provide a full year's coverage for hospital care. In departing with previous health-care doctrine, the new benefits were to be paid for entirely by beneficiaries themselves through a monthly premium increase.
As the bill moved through Congress - just as with Clinton's - it was changed dramatically. Democrats added more benefits and more taxes, until the bill had evolved into a complicated and costly package of reforms. By the time Congress was finished, the bill was so convoluted that most Americans - and some members themselves - didn't quite know what they were getting.
An avalanche of letters from irate voters ended Washington's experiment with catastrophic coverage. Democrats should take care that the same thing doesn't happen to their current health-care plan.