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Medicare warnings on the way

Attention, seniors: Watch out for your mailbox.

As Congress gears up for this summer's battle over large reductions in Medicare, senior citizens' groups are flooding the mails with letters that range from disconcerting to downright terrifying. The tricky part is separating political rhetoric from policy developments.

Here's a sampling of the headlines:

"The Threat: "Gingrich Urges Replacing Medicare,' " warns a red-and-blue business card distributed by the National Council of Senior Citizens. "Save Medicare! Call Congress."

"Could you be forced to give up your Medicare?" asks the envelope from The Seniors Coalition. "The answer may shock you!"

"Urgent. Important Medicare Information," announces the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

And most don't stop there. The dire warnings usually come with a pitch: Give us some money to fight for you.

The Seniors Coalition, which has already contacted a half-million retirees, has set up a special Medicare Defense Fund. "Unless members like you help with a contribution, our effort to save Medicare is doomed to fail," writes Jake Hansen, vice president for government affairs.

When the letter from Hansen arrived in her Spring Hill mailbox last week, Beatrice Braun was fuming.

"It will frighten a lot of people and confuse them," said Braun, who is a board member of the American Association of Retired Persons. "They will make sacrifices and send the money. Seniors tend to be pretty generous."

Braun notes that AARP, which raises money through other commercial activities, does not solicit any more than $8 in dues from its 33-million members.

The National Committee includes a Protect Medicare Emergency Reply Form asking elderly to "help when and as you can."

Each mailing delivers a slightly different punch. The conservative Seniors Coalition blames President Clinton for problems in the Medicare Trust Fund while the more liberal National Committee targets the Republican Congress and its Medicare reductions.

That means that America's retirees _ who vote more than any other constituency _ are not only caught in the middle of a complicated budgetary debate but also are being sucked into a high-stakes political brawl.

"Mailings generally today are so outlandish and so extreme I tell seniors to be real careful about taking your checkbook out of the drawer," said Rep. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who headed the Gray Panthers.

At age 82, Tom Garrard says he tears up most of the mail from seniors' groups.

"Most of this stuff is a con game," said Garrard, who is Speaker of the House of the Silver-haired Legislature in Florida. "A lot of people fall for it."

Direct-mail campaigns targeting groups such as retirees are hardly new. Still, many lawmakers would like to crack down on the alarmist mailings.

"By and large the majority of people understand they are being manipulated, but some get manipulated," said Republican freshman Rep. David Weldon, who has a high percentage of retirees in his central Florida district. "The people who work for some of these groups are taking advantage of a climate of fear to improve their fund raising."

Three years ago, Rep. Andrew Jacobs, an Indiana Democrat, held hearings to investigate similar mailings. His GOP counterpart, Rep. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, plans more later this year.

"Some of the things they send out are total and complete outright lies," said Bunning, who chairs a key Social Security subcommittee. "They are absolutely frightening them to death."

Bunning said he is investigating every senior citizens' group, but some Democrats assert he is simply targeting organizations that oppose the GOP budget plan to cut Medicare's growth rate in half.

"There's always somebody out there trying to make money at someone else's expense," said Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat. "What I see going on is totally different. These are attempts by Republicans to try to silence elderly groups."

Bunning acknowledged he is upset over claims by some groups that Republicans plan to slash Medicare, when in fact the GOP will simply slow the rate of growth.

"We have enough problems salvaging Medicare without them distorting the situation," he said in an interview.

Virtually every seniors' group said it welcomes hearings.

"We stand behind our mail," said Bill Ritz, a spokesman for the National Committee. "At a time when the number of beneficiaries is growing, they're basically trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag. These reductions will sharply increase out-of-pocket expenditures."

The 6-million member committee was tarnished several years ago when its mailings warning of Social Security cuts closely resembled official government documents. The group, which Jacobs says has "cleaned up its act," now includes a lengthy report in its mail packets giving a financial report and explaining the group is not affiliated with the government.

Hansen defends his anti-Clinton mailing saying the White House has not addressed Medicare's long-term financial problems.

"Medicare is going bankrupt," he said. "That has nothing to do with the Republicans in Congress."

Most of the lobbyists also note that not every mailing solicits money.

When the National Council of Senior Citizens mailed 500,000 business cards with the Medicare alert, the goal was to flood Capitol Hill telephones, said spokesman Patrick Burns.

"This is less of a moneymaker," he said. "We're doing this to get people to take action."

The council, which was formed in 1961 and has about 4.5-million members, generally mails two solicitations a year compared to an industry average of four, said Burns.

With all the charges and countercharges flying over Medicare, some advocates fear seniors won't be able to make sense of the far-reaching debate in Congress.

"Older people in general, whatever the scare tactics, aren't aware of the implications of what's going to happen," said Gerald Buchert, director of the St. Petersburg Office on Aging.

The difficulty, said Jacobs, is separating fact from fiction. "The truth is a pretty hard thing to come by."