Peoria Journal Star

January 29, 2003

Peoria couple puts human face on Bush's argument for changing Medicare 

of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - For Peoria resident James Beemer, watching President Bush deliver his State of the Union address live Tuesday night in the U.S.
Capitol was "kind of like a dream." 

Beemer and his wife, Mildred, both 77, sat one row behind Laura Bush in the gallery overlooking the House floor where the president addressed a joint session of Congress. The choice seats allowed them to be seen
several times on national television, applauding vigorously. 

"It was great. It really was," said James Beemer after Bush's speech. "The president and his wife met us after the speech and took individual pictures. 

"His speech was so good. He spoke in a low, firm voice. He assured everybody, and you felt he was speaking from his heart." 

The White House hoped the Beemers would put a human face on Bush's argument for changing Medicare. Bush wants to offer prescription drug coverage as an inducement to Medicare recipients to use managed-care programs. Democrats have pledged to fight the plan, saying it would weaken the current Medicare safety net. 

Jim Beemer had a heart attack two years ago and now raves about the care he received through OSF Care Advantage, a Medicare+Choice program. He switched to the program a year before his heart attack to save
about $3,600 a year. So how does one win such a coveted seat at a nationally televised presidential address? 

The Beemers came to the nation's capital on May 17 to participate in an event sponsored by the American Association of Health Plans, which represents OSF Care Advantage and other health maintenance organizations
(HMOs) and preferred provider organizations (PPOs). During a White House meeting, Beemer told the story of his heart attack and the care he received from OSF Care Advantage. Even though he paid less for it, he
said, the care was impressive. He particularly liked that the HMO took care of all the bookwork with Medicare, he said. 

White House officials apparently noticed because last Friday they called the Beemers at their Peoria home to invite them to the State of the Union address. 

The couple was told not to tell anyone, even family members, where they were going until the White House released the information Tuesday afternoon. "We left town telling them we were going to be gone for two days, to Washington, D.C. That's all we were permitted to say," Jim Beemer said. 

The Beemers were two of 25 VIP guests of the president and his wife. Others included people who would benefit from Bush's tax-cut proposal and doctors
hurt by high malpractice insurance costs.   One seat was left empty to represent "the empty place that Americans will always have at their tables and in their lives" because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a White House press release said. 

The Reagan administration started the practice of inviting ordinary citizens to the presidential box for major appearances before Congress, said Stephen
Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution and a former White House speechwriter. 

"It helps to make whatever point the president is making at the time," Hess said. 

White House aides also will use various political criteria in picking people for the honor, said Norman Ornstein, a political expert at the American Enterprise Institute. 

In this case, Ornstein added, it is no accident that the Beemers hail from "a battleground state" with a huge cache of electoral votes that will be on the line in the 2004 presidential election. 

But he also stressed Beemer's medical story. 

"For seniors who fear being forced out of the comforting and familiar provisions of Medicare and into the uncertainties of a managed care or an HMO
program, here is somebody who can say his life may have been saved by being in that program," Ornstein said. 

Earlier this month, the American Association of Health Plans, which paid for the Beemers' trip to Washington, urged Congress to provide more federal funding for Medicare+Choice programs, saying some 670,000 seniors and disabled would be forced out of their plans by January 2004. 

The Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group, said private insurers are expected to earn as much as $25 billion, nearly double their current Medicare business, if the Bush plan passes. 

Paul Krawzak of Copley News Service contributed to this story.