RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Even though the health care debate is partly about getting insurance to people who don't have it, much of the discussion focuses on people who by and large are already covered - America's senior citizens. Seniors have power and they're being courted as lawmakers move toward key votes on bills that would extend health insurance to millions of the uninsured. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.
JULIE ROVNER: While most seniors love their government-run Medicare coverage, there are some things they'd like to see improved. One of those things is the so-called doughnut hole. It's a quirk in Medicare's prescription drug benefit where drug coverage stops but seniors still have to pay their monthly premiums.
At a Capitol Hill news conference last week, AARP's Nancy LeaMond said it's a fairly widespread problem.
Ms. NANCY LEAMOND (AARP): In 17 states, over 30 percent of all Medicare recipients are in the doughnut hole. This is a big issue for us.
ROVNER: So buried in the health care overhaul bills are provisions to address that problem. And unlike many of the other benefits in the bill, said Florida Democrat Congressman Ron Klein, seniors won't have to wait.
Representative RON KLEIN (Democrat, Florida): We're making this happen right away, as early as January 1 of next year. And from day one seniors will see real relief. The doughnut hole will start to shrink and seniors who fall into it will immediately pay less for their medicine.
ROVNER: 50 percent less for brand-name medicines, to be specific. And over the next 10 years the doughnut hole will be closed completely. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that's faster than was envisioned when the bills were first considered by House committees last summer.
Speaker NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): This is one of the improvements from the original bill to now. The bill was - the first bill was good. This is much better.
ROVNER: Filling in the Medicare drug benefits doughnut hole is just one of the sweeteners aimed at seniors. There's also free preventive services and the Senate Finance Committee bill includes the cost of annual physical for every Medicare patient. Currently the program only covers a single physical for first time enrollees.
Bob Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health says it's no secret why Democrats are so anxious to court senior support for their health effort.
Mr. BOB BLENDON (Harvard School of Public Health): Seniors as a group are a swing vote between the parties. And in elections where the president is not running - off-year elections - they tend to turn out at much higher proportions than other age groups. And when it comes to voting, it turns out that health care is incredibly important to their vote, much more so than younger voters.
ROVNER: But at the moment, says Blendon, who specialize in public opinion on health care, most seniors have a more negative view of the health overhaul effort than other age groups. He says that's due in part to an all-out effort by Republicans to play up the fact that a significant portion of the bill would be financed by cutting payments to Medicare.
Democrats say those cuts are aimed at waste and unnecessary spending and won't affect benefits. But Republicans like David Dreier of California say that's not how their constituents see it.
Representative DAVID DREIER (Republican, California): They know and understand that a massive government takeover of health care is not the answer to our problem. In fact, it could exacerbate the problem, especially with the proposed Medicare cuts that will hurt our seniors.
ROVNER: But Blendon says at least part of the problem Democrats have with seniors is that they've simply done a bad sales job.
Mr. BLENDON: And all they hear about is that their care currently could deteriorate by very large cuts. And they're not at all seeing the potential benefits that the Congress has tried to provide in this legislation for them.
ROVNER: Which helps explain the stepped-up efforts by Democrats in recent weeks to try to publicize the new benefits for seniors. The question remains, though, whether it's too little, too late.
Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: We're glad you're following our health care coverage this morning on this public radio station, and as you check news headlines through the day at NPR.org you can also offer your own opinions on health care.
MONTAGNE: And in the other big health story we're following, government health officials say people should start having an easier time getting the vaccine for the H1N1 virus. More than 22 million doses are available now. There were just 14 million doses on hand last week. The shortage has upset millions of people across the country who were standing in lines to get the vaccine for hours.
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