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Rosty's 'Catastrophic' Moment Over Health Care Was a First

Aug 11, 2010 – 5:21 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Aug. 11) -- Long before raucous town hall meetings and tea party protests over government-run health care, there was the "catastrophic" chaos surrounding Dan Rostenkowski's car.

As Washington remembered the former Chicago congressman, who died today, a former aide spoke with AOL News about a remarkable chapter in health care policy-making, or in that case, unmaking.

"I was out there on the street with him that day," recalled Jim Jaffe, Rostenkowski's longtime press secretary. "When you see the video with the old lady chasing him down the hill, I was there. It was a wonderful media moment."

It was not so wonderful for Rosty, as the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was known. The moment, nearly 21 years ago to the day, was captured in an iconic video clip that has served ever since as a warning to lawmakers about the way seemingly good intentions in Washington can go very bad back home.

The Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, first unveiled by President Ronald Reagan, became law in July 1989. The measure provided seniors on Medicare with protection against catastrophic medical expenses and coverage of prescription drug costs. The benefits were to be paid for exclusively by the elderly receiving them, with high-income seniors paying an extra premium surtax.

Soon after Congress passed the law on an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, Rosty returned to his district. It was there, after a fairly civil meeting with seniors resentful over having to pay higher taxes for coverage they either already had from a former employer or didn't want, that he was accosted by an angry mob of Social Security recipients.

As the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, Aug. 19, 1989:
Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, one of the most powerful politicians in the United States, was booed and chased down a Chicago street Thursday morning by a group of senior citizens after he refused to talk with them about federal health insurance. Shouting "coward," "recall" and "impeach," about 50 people followed the chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee up Milwaukee Avenue after he left a meeting in the auditorium of the Copernicus Center, 3106 N. Milwaukee Ave., in the heart of his 8th Congressional District on the city's Northwest Side.

Eventually, the 6-foot-4-inch Rostenkowski cut through a gas station, broke into a sprint and escaped into his car, which minutes earlier had one of the elderly protesters, Leona Kozien, draped over the hood. Kozien, one of more than 100 senior citizens who attended the gathering, said she had hoped to talk to Rostenkowski, her congressman, at the meeting.

But Rostenkowski clearly did not want to talk with her, or any of the others who had come to tell their complaints about the high cost of federal catastrophic health insurance. "These people don't understand what the government is trying to do for them," the 61-year-old congressman complained as he tried to outpace his pursuers.
"This was a setup," said Jaffe, who can be seen in the video ducking into the backseat of the car. "They were standing with made-for-television signs about how he had sold them out."

As the Tribune reported, "Kozien was soon on the hood, determinedly holding her sign only inches from the windshield. Except for the glass, she was virtually face-to-face with her congressman. 'I was a little nervous,' Kozien said later. 'But I could see through the car window that he looked more afraid than I was.'"

Jaffe couldn't recall the name of the woman in rose-colored, heart-shaped sunglasses holding a sign reading, "Seniors for Repeal of the Catastrophic Act." But he said she later changed her mind, even though that was not widely reported.

"The lady who hit his car, a couple years later she thought catastrophic was a good idea. But it was too late by then," he said.

Indeed, faced with a massive revolt that inspired a New Republic magazine cover story on "greedy geezers," Congress repealed the law three months later.

"All of the protests were shots of people out on golf courses in Florida saying, 'God damn it, I can't afford to pay for this,'" Jaffe said.

It would take until 2003, in the George W. Bush administration, for Congress to bring back a prescription drug benefit for seniors. Catastrophic coverage has never been revived.

When President Bill Clinton assigned his wife the task of reforming the entire health care system in 1993, many recalled the spectacle in Chicago. "That was the first signal a lot of us had that this was really a third rail," Jaffe said. "It's an extremely dangerous issue, and if you didn't handle it extremely carefully, you get burned by it." As the Clintons soon learned.

Looking back, Jaffe favorably compared the bill Rostenkowski championed to President Barack Obama's health care reform law, which conservatives have vowed to repeal if they regain control of Congress this fall.

"It was one of the few bills done in a fiscally responsible way. Unlike the new bill, taxes were collected before the benefits kicked in," Jaffe said.

When Democrats wrote the current legislation, he said, "there were lessons learned. This time, they were very careful to give people the dessert before they served them the spinach." For example, benefits allowing young adults to stay on their parents' health plan have kicked in, while more controversial parts won't take effect for years.

Rostenkowski's obituaries today played up his ignominious downfall in a fraud scandal that sent him to federal prison. But Jaffe remembers his old boss as a master of the deal whose bipartisan horse trading helped pass landmark tax legislation of a kind hardly imaginable in today's polarized Congress.

"He was a giant," said Jaffe, "and he was a role model for all of us who got a chance to work with him."

Filed under: Nation, Politics
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