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'Telephone town hall' draws nearly 10,000 AARP members

By Bill Kettler

For the Tidings

MEDFORD ­— Thousands of AARP members across Oregon dialed into a "telephone town hall" about health-care reform Wednesday that was moderated from Medford.

AARP members asked questions about everything from proposed cuts in Medicare spending to end-of-life care while others listened on their home phones.

Jerry Cohen, AARP's state director for Oregon, fielded questions for Dr. Allen Douma of Ashland, a member of AARP's national board of directors, as they sat in the RCC/SOU Higher Education Center. Nora Super, AARP's director of government relations for health care and long-term care, joined the conversation on a phone link from Washington, D.C.

Automated computer software dialed thousands of AARP members' home phones beginning at 9:30 a.m. and invited them to join in the conversation. About 9,500 people listened to some or all of the hourlong exchange.

"Our goal is to help cut through the noise (about health-care reform) and help you make intelligent choices," Cohen said in his introduction.

AARP members from Astoria to Elgin waited to pose questions. Several wanted to know whether AARP has endorsed any of the health-care reform proposals now in Congress.

Douma, who formerly managed the Oregon Health Plan, said AARP has not yet endorsed any particular proposal, but has four broad goals: reducing drug costs; protecting individuals' rights to choose their physicians and hospitals; ending discrimination against people who have pre-existing medical conditions; and providing stable, affordable health care for everyone.

Cohen asked Super and Douma to address some of the misconceptions that have arisen over the reform proposals. Super said none of the bills have any provisions that would euthanize elders or require people to forgo treatments because of advanced age.

She said people who promote untruths are using "cruel scare tactics."

Douma said changing the way the United States provides health care is critical because costs have been doubling, on average, every seven or eight years.

"We are running into a catastrophic tsunami that is going to price nearly everybody out (of the health-care market). It's critically unsustainable. We just have to do it now.

"The next seven or eight years are critical. Imagine what it would be like (in health care) if everything were twice as expensive."

AARP members' questions hit on several key areas of the national discussion on health care. A caller from Eagle Point urged AARP to defend Medicare against proposals that would cut spending on elders' health care.

Super said AARP is working to make sure any spending cuts don't adversely affect the care Medicare patients receive.

"We don't support across-the-board cuts," she said. "We support smart, targeted (cost-cutting) measures that make sense."

Douma noted there are many inefficiencies in the current system that make health care unnecessarily expensive. He said a study by the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine suggests anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of health-care spending does nothing to make people healthier.

Cohen asked Douma about AARP's position on government-managed health care.

"We want affordable plans," Douma said, "which may include a public (government-managed) option. Bear in mind, Medicare is a public option."

A woman from La Grande wanted to know whether provisions that would require everyone to buy insurance would extend to homeless people and others with little or no income.

Super explained that a hardship exemption would be available for people who lacked the resources to buy insurance.

Cohen and Douma met with local community leaders to hear their thoughts on health-care reform.

Reach Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or bkettler@mailtribune.com.