Wednesday, June 3, 1998

Friends, there is a reason the AARP remains not just the largest non-denominational organization in America, but also one of the most vital. Because you have always recognized the changing needs of a changing population.

I have come here today to tell my fellow members of the AARP: I am committed to protecting America's seniors, and helping you seize the new opportunities of a new century. If we rise to its changes and challenges, the 21st Century can be the healthiest and most hopeful time America's seniors have ever known.

I want to talk about four major changes that are shaping the lives of America's seniors, and the ways we can meet them together.

First, as we approach the 21st Century, America is becoming grayer. Not only is our senior population doubling in the next 30 years, but life expectancy is increasing dramatically. What a blessing. Sixty years ago, average life expectancy was below the retirement age. Today, it is 76 and rising.

That is why we must recommit ourselves to the greatest programs ever created by our national government: Social Security and Medicare. We must protect them for today, and we must save them for tomorrow.

First, we must defend Medicare. You know, even though I was young at the time, I still remember the fights over its creation. I remember one man standing up on the floor of the United States Senate in 1964, offering an amendment to protect seniors from being decimated by illness.

When he was waging that fight, 46% of older Americans were uninsured, and almost a third lived in poverty. The amendment he offered was Medicare, and he described its mission in these words: it's "the most pressing, unmet problem in our society." He didn't get a majority for his idea that year, but the following year, after the big change in the Congress in November of 1964, he kept fighting for it -- and, in July of 1965, it became the law of the land.

That man was my father, Senator Albert Gore, Sr. He is 90 today -- and his role in the fight for Medicare is one of the proudest moments of both his life and mine.

Medicare provides health care for 39 million seniors and their families. Because it is now law, the ranks of uninsured elderly have dropped from almost 50 percent to only one percent, and the poverty rate among seniors has dropped by almost two-thirds. And we must always remember that Medicare is not just for the oldest generations, but for all generations. I remember my mother and father worrying about the health expenses of my grandparents. And I knowmany of you went through those same trials.

And many still do. Consider Marlys and Kenneth Drebenstedt of Bloomington, Minnesota. I met with them on my last trip here to Minnesota last week. I got to know them a little bit, and I invited them and some others who are here today to join us.

Like more and more Americans, they are struggling to care for both their children and their parents. Kenneth's mother had worked for years in difficult physical labor, scrubbing floors on her knees. In her later years, she became frail; her body wore out in many places. She suffered from arthritis, back problems, and eye problems. The Drebenstedts had a really difficult 12 years of caring for her. Without Medicare, they would not have been able to pay for her health care in the final years of her life. Now, Marlys's mother -- now almost 80 -- faces similar challenges. The Drebenstedts shouldn't have to choose between saving for their children's education, and paying for their parents' health care. Thanks to Medicare, they don't have to.

We all know stories like theirs. So when some in Congress passed deep cuts in Medicare and the wrong kind of reforms, I wasn't surprised by the AARP's reaction: you said it was "too much, too fast," and that there was "no other alternative" but the veto. That was good advice --and we took it. We stopped those dangerous proposals. And hear me well: if Congress threatens Medicare again, we'll stop them again.

I'm proud that we worked together to strengthen Medicare, and extend the life of the trust fund by a decade. Now we must do more to crack down on fraud and abuse in a health care system that is driven too much by profit. President Clinton and I have assigned more prosecutors to fight health care fraud, saving $20 billion.

Today, I'm announcing a new plan that will enlist seniors in the battle against fraud. We've already seen how seniors can help. Senator Tom Harkin launched a pilot Medicare Senior Waste Patrol in 12 states including Minnesota. In Iowa, one member of the patrol, Barbara Whitney, had her annual flu shot, but then was called back for another shot because the first was defective. But when she got her bill, she noticed that Medicare had been charged for both shots -- and when she reported that error, we found out that Medicare had been double-billed for every senior in the area who had received flu shots. She single-handedly saved Medicare more than $1 million.

That's the kind of help we need from seniors all over the country. So today, I am announcing on behalf of President Clinton a new regulation that says: wherever you live, if you find fraud in the Medicare system, and it is eliminated because of your work, you can keep 10 percent of the money we save, up to $1,000. Together, let's make sure that every dollar of Medicare goes into health, not waste.

And let's pass the President's proposal to extend Medicare to those who are 55 to 65. I say to Congress: it's time to let the near-elderly buy into Medicare, because no one should fallthrough the cracks of our health care system.

And next we must protect Social Security. We all know what Social Security has done to lift generations of seniors out of poverty. America heeded the words of the scripture: "Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone."

And the benefits of Social Security cascade down through the generations. Look at Ann Svendsen, of Tyler, Minnesota. She's 63 now. But when she was 26 and already a mother of five, her husband died in a farming accident. Without Social Security Survivors' Benefits, she would have been forced to go on welfare. In those days, it was only $254 a month. For a widow with five children, that works out to about a dollar a day per person. But she made it last, and Social Security enabled her family to survive.

In recent years, she also cared for her parents, with the help of Medicare. In fact, her father just died of prostate cancer at the age of 90 two months ago. And Ann is now a volunteer in the effort to root out fraud and abuse.

The security provided to survivors, like Ann Svendsen and her children, has been crucial to millions of Americans, and of course, millions more have benefitted from the disability program. But the retirement part of Social Security -- the largest part -- remains the single most important act of social policy ever enacted by the United States government. You've paid into it all your lives. You deserve it. And we're going to make sure nobody takes it away.

When President Clinton announced that we would have the first budget surplus in 30 years, he warned that there would be temptations to spend it right away for politically popular purposes: brand new programs on one hand, huge tax cuts on the other.

President Clinton and I believe we must take a different course with our hard-won fiscal discipline: we must reserve every penny of any surplus until we save Social Security first.

I ask you: should we spend the surplus on tax cuts before Social Security is fixed? Should we spend the surplus on new programs before Social Security is fixed? Or should we save every penny of the surplus until we save Social Security first?

This is more than a fiscal responsibility. It is a profoundly moral responsibility. All Americans earned that budget surplus -- and almost all Americans paid into Social Security. That is why all of us, together, must make this pledge.

And it must be a bipartisan pledge. Earlier this year, leaders in both parties endorsed it. Now some are already trying to back away, to break a pledge as fundamental as Social Security itself. This is no time to turn back -- and no time to play politics with America's retirement savings.

Of course there won't be easy answers, or quick fixes. The AARP knows that, which is why you're helping to start a national dialogue, through forums across the country - such as the one I will be joining in Providence, Rhode Island on July 1st. We need all of you to join this debate. I know there isn't a single person here today who doesn't want Social Security to be as strong for your grandchildren as it is for you.

So let us send a message, loud and clear, to those who would trade away our long-term security for a fistful of short-term silver: hands off our surplus until we save Social Security first.

Our seniors face a second great change as we approach the 21st Century. Today, seniors are not just living longer, but staying healthier, living better, doing more for themselves and for their communities.

The AARP has been a national leader in creating new opportunities for today's seniors --people like Winnie and Don Gustafson of Esko, Minnesota. Don's a former high school principal, and Winnie has nursing experience. As they approached retirement, they realized how complicated it can be for seniors to sort through their health and retirement options - especially as we expand benefits and choices in Medicare.

So the Gustafsons volunteered as insurance counselors - to help seniors navigate a changing health care system. With a quick phone call by Don or one of Winnie's e-mails on the Internet, there's hardly a question they can't answer. They're just two of 14 million seniors volunteering across America -- and we're proud of all of them.

But let's be clear: not every retiree is blessed with the good health the Gustafsons have. Look at what Patrick Jarchow of Little Canada, Minnesota has been through.

From the day he finished high school and vocational school, he worked in the sheet metal trades, always in hard jobs - moving literally tons of steel every day, piece by piece. By the time he was in his 30's, he had torn his shoulder, thrown out his back, and literally collapsed on the shop floor. By the time he reached his late 40's, his doctor had told him he faced permanent paralysis if he kept working in hard physical labor. For Patrick, that meant early retirement, and a series of odd jobs. He told me: "they took my health; they might as well have taken my heart."

So as we discuss ways to reform and save Social Security, as we sit in front of those actuarial tables, let's not forget the extra wear and tear on those who work hard physical jobs --scrubbing floors, moving sheet metal, working on their feet all day as waitresses. Our nation needs to think long and hard about how to protect this vulnerable group.

Third, as we approach the 21st Century, our health care system is changing dramatically. A lot of that is because of managed care. 160 million Americans are now enrolled in managed care plans -- in part because of the savings they offer. Those savings are a good thing. But when you have a health problem, the doctor's first question should be "where does it hurt;" not "willyour health plan pay."

Last week at the White House, the President and I met with Ricka Powers, who lives right here in Minneapolis. She told us how, six weeks ago, she learned that she is one of the 2.6 million American women with breast cancer. But it was three years ago that she first found a lump in her breast. She went to her HMO for testing, and was sent home with a clean bill of health. She started to feel sicker -- but her requests for further tests were denied. When she finally paid for a biopsy on her own, she found she had stage two breast cancer. She needed surgery.

But Ricka told us that her HMO would only let her see a general surgeon. She told of having to make 123 phone calls in one week, desperate for help. She told of having to schedule her surgery on her own -- and of having to battle to win payment for the chemotherapy she began just two days ago. President Clinton and I have heard too many stories like hers -- stories of people denied access to emergency room care. People denied the right to appeal when they can't get the care they need.

That's not managed care -- it's managed cost. And it is shameful. No one should have to make 123 phone calls just to see a specialist. No one should have to fight with their HMO while they're trying to fight off a deadly disease.

Americans need the best care, not just the cheapest care. Crucial medical decisions should be made by doctors, not accountants.

Let's be clear: many managed care plans offer outstanding care, with lower cost and added benefits. But even the best managed care plans, with the best intentions, can sometimes make mistakes. This isn't about numbers and statistics -- it's about ensuring that every individual patient in America has his or her rights protected.

We need a law that will give every American in an HMO the right to see a specialist when they need one. We need a law that will give every American to appeal if an HMO denies them the care they need.

We need a Patients' Bill of Rights in this country. And President Clinton and I are fighting to pass it into law. I urge all of you to tell Congress: pass the Patients' Bill of Rights into law.

Fourth, and finally, as we approach the 21st Century, we are making scientific and medical breakthroughs that would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. Thomas Flatman once said that "Age...brings along with him a terrible artillery." More and more, thanks to science and medicine, we are fighting back.

The pace of aging research is astonishing: from the discovery of a new gene associatedwith Alzheimer's, to promising new treatments for osteoporosis, to new ways of predicting prostate cancer. In the past decade and a half, chronic disability among the elderly has declined by almost 15 percent.

I believe that living longer should mean access to the medical breakthroughs that let you enjoy life longer. That is why the President and I have proposed an increase of 50 percent in biomedical research, including an unprecedented increase of 65 percent in cancer research through the NIH.

Research and discovery is just the first hurdle. Too often, the elderly are not participating in clinical trials, because Medicare does not cover them.

Just last week, Dr. Jan Buckner, an Oncologist at the Mayo Clinic here in Minnesota, was telling me why it is so critical to enroll more seniors in clinical trials -- to learn more about aging and the elderly, and to make new treatments available to them. This January, I announced a new proposal to let Medicare to cover certain cancer clinical trials. Now Congress should pass it into law. Seniors deserve the latest and best weapons in the war against cancer.

Then there is the simple challenge of sharing our newest discoveries with our oldest Americans -- educating them, informing them, and testing them for disease so we can prevent it and cure it.

That approach would have meant a world of difference to 73-year-old Gerry Kozberg, of St. Paul. For years, she had the telltale signs of osteoporosis -- her hemlines became uneven, and she was losing height. But she had never even heard of the disease, let alone had a test for it.

Then, during her very first week of retirement, a fracture left her in almost constant pain for three months. Her doctors, for all their good intentions, simply didn't know what was wrong.

Finally, she got a proper diagnosis, got the right medication - and she has now been pain-free for seven weeks. And as is typical of a mother, her main concern is that her daughter have the proper tests -- and that no other women in America be forced to live with that pain.

As we have reformed and strengthened Medicare, I am proud that we have expanded it, to offer new preventive benefits that save lives and reduce pain. We are expanding it to cover the bone mass measurement tests that can identify osteoporosis, tests for diabetes, mammography, colorectal screening, and prostate cancer screening. We are doing more to find and prevent chronic disease before it's too late.

In closing, let me say that there is no more sacred obligation than to care for our parents, and help them live every day to its fullest -- especially in this new time of opportunity.

The generation that won World War Two -- the generations that built America's post-war prosperity, and passed on their values of hard work, family, and community -- they are Americans we must never forsake, and always honor.

And at its heart, this is about something more than programs or policies -- it is about real people's lives. I'd like to ask some of our special guests to stand and be recognized:

As we fight to protect Medicare for our future, and for our children's future, let's remember Marlys and Kenneth Drebenstedt.

As we recall what Social Security has meant to this country, and as we save Social Security first, let's remember Ann Svendsen.

As we celebrate seniors who are making a difference, every day of their lives, let's remember Winnie and Don Gustafson.

As we honor the blessings of age -- and as we recognize its burdens -- let us remember Patrick Jarchow.

As we expand preventive care for all Americans, let's remember Gerry Kozberg.

As we fight for a Patients' Bill of Rights, to ensure the best quality health care in the world, let's remember Ricka Powers.

My fellow AARP members: these are the faces of America's future. These are the people I pledge to help and protect. And this is one membership I will be proud to keep for a long, long time. Thank you.

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