Drug Cards Perplex Seniors

Of the 26,000 seniors who received enrollment kits for Medicare's new drug discount cards only 400 had signed up as of May 28, Alexandra Marks reported in the June 2 Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com). Robert Hayes, president of the Medicare Rights Center in New York, said "the nonresponse is not surprising," but is "a combination of the complexity of the program and the meagerness of the benefit for most people." With over 70 card options and "an internet-based system for comparison shopping," the program does indeed seem complex. Says Florida senior Mary Telsa "I haven't signed up ... because I don't understand how to get enrolled." As for the program's "meagerness," critics point out that drug price inflation has reduced the effectiveness of the card's discounts to the point where cheaper options will still exist in Canada and online. But, say supporters, the program is not without its benefits. Low-income elderly may be eligible for a $600 discount and $4.6 million has been allotted to help more citizens take advantage of it. Several private groups, including WebMD, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the National Council on Aging, have pitched in to help educate seniors about the program and how to use it in the hope that with increased understanding will come increased participation.

TRADE POWER GRAB. Mischa Gaus, in the June 2 In These Times (inthesetimes.com), reports on the chilling development in trade policy represented by a proposal to include individual states in "upcoming trade agreements which would allow foreign companies to bid on the states purchasing and contracts." The move, Gaus writes, "could undermine laws that reign in capitalism's worst abuses." The plan would rob states of the ability to insist that the goods they purchase are manufactured in accordance with environmental and human rights standards. Or, as Chris Slevin, spokesman for Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, puts it: "The way a product is made and who does it are rights states hold in purchasing laws," adding simply "they're giving those rights away." States who sign on to Robert Zoellick's (Bush's top trade official) plan would "give the Bush administration blanket approval to commit them to the rules of the Central American Free Trade Agreement ... as well as bilateral trade deals with Australia and Morocco." State purchasing is usually exempt from the rules of international trade agreements but under Zoellick's plan the rules of "all trade pacts under negotiation" could be brought to bear on it. Using the rules of certain trade agreements, big corporations would be able to sue states for restricting their profits by requiring them to adhere to environmental or anti-sweatshop policies, thereby making human rights gains such as the "licensing agreements corporations sign with universities prohibiting child labor" a thing of the past. Once states sign on with Zoellick, signing off becomes difficult. Extrication rules require that a state compensate all "signatories ... for the loss of this 'benefit.'"

BISHOPS BACKLASH DIVIDES CATHOLICS. Debate continues over whether Catholics in public office should face punishment from the church if their views run contrary to dogma and doctrine. And, as always, it centers on abortion, the Catholic running for highest public office, Sen. John Kerry, and the "handful of US bishops" who would refuse him communion and, in doing so, inflict on Kerry "the most grievous punishment possible short of excommunication from the church." Jane Lampman reports in the May 28 Christian Science Monitor on the real divide among Catholic faithful, such as Terry Carden, who says "we haven't had situations in my lifetime where people have been identified as public sinners -- presumably we've come some distance from the Middle Ages when they used to do that ... And it's unbelievable that people are being [singled out] on the basis of their political positions, not on active behaviors of their own."

or Rev. Richard John Nehaus, who calls the bishops' action long overdue. "It's a longstanding scandal that most of the bishops in years past tried to finesse or evade their responsibility in calling Catholics to account," Nehaus said. Following on the heels of St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke's declaration that politicians who support abortion rights can't receive communion, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs has added that those who vote for supporters of abortion rights, gay marriage, stem cell research or euthanasia should also be denied the sacrament. Conspicuously absent from Sheridan's list of issues is the death penalty, which the church has long and vocally opposed. Some see this as evidence of political partisanship in a right-shifting institution, but others disagree. Among them is Nehaus, who counters "nothing else in the catalogue of issues has anywhere near the authoritative status of the teaching on abortion."

Charles Cullen monitors the press from Atlanta, Ga.

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