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Mixed Diagnosis

Medicare get grins, grimaces and shrugs in Green Valley.

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Today's beanbag-tossing tourney is almost a wrap, and competition is fierce. All afternoon, this passel of senior citizens has been aiming for glory in front of American Legion Post 66, in the shadow of strip mines on the fringes of Green Valley.

"Thwack!" goes another bag landing just short of its target, a hole cut in a wooden box. Maryann Erwin watches the battle closely, but finally carves out a moment to opine on the new Medicare bill headed for President Bush's ink pen. "I think people are going to watch it pretty closely," says the well-dressed, retired hospital administrator from the East Coast. "Older people have gone bankrupt buying their prescriptions."

Estimated to cost $400 billion over the next decade, the bill would provide prescription benefits to 40 million disabled and elderly people, and eventually allow private insurance companies to compete with the government program. Narrowly passed by a vitriolic Senate on Oct. 25, it marks the biggest changes in Medicare since the program began in 1965. But despite reportedly widespread senior teeth-gnashing, most Green Valley denizens are taking the shifts in stride. After all, it's hard to growl when you're living the good life.

But there's one peculiarity of the mostly Republican measure that hits home: Up to 40 percent of Americans crossing into Mexico each year return with pharmaceuticals, which are far cheaper south of the border. And those ranks include a good chunk of Green Valley's 17,000 residents: Many local, senior-oriented tour companies even offer pharmacy stops on their Nogales day trips. But Medicare still won't pay for these imports. "I know many who get their prescriptions filled in Mexico," says Erwin. "I don't know what this Medicare bill will do for them."

Then she's cut-off: Her opining has distracted the beanbag warriors, who grimly shoo her away. In fact, most folks at American Legion Post 66 take little note of Congressional wrangling a continent away. And they certainly aren't worried inside the legion's packed-to-the-rafters saloon, a smoky cacophony of flashing video screens, bustling bartenders and reveling retirees.

"To be honest, I haven't heard many of our folks even talking about it," says Ray Greeley, 80, a retired car parts wholesaler, and currently commander of the 950-member post. Regardless, this dignified, friendly fellow in a subdued cardigan sweater says he whole-heartedly backs the Commander-in-Chief in such matters. "I'm a bonafide Republican. I think what the Republicans are doing is the right thing. And I don't think retirees would have it as good today under Clinton. We need to change the Medicare system one way or another, and I think Bush will leave it in good shape."

Greeley also takes an opportunity to extol on terrorism, Iraq and the state of America: President Bush "is a victim of circumstances," he says. "But I'm behind him 100 percent."

Down the street at the Lion's Bin, a tidy recycling center operated by the Lion's Club, retired dentist Ted Blomquist is extracting fat grocery bags from a green Ford Explorer. He then dumps the soda cans and jam jars onto a long conveyer, which whizzes them up into a haul-away. A rangy, genteel man wearing a floppy hat, Blomquist is skeptical of the Medicare changes. "I think its effectiveness is questionable," he says. "Why? Because Ted Kennedy says it was questionable."

It comes as no surprise, then, that Blomquist calls himself a Democrat. But he was a lifelong Republican, before the GOP started driving him away. "I don't like the idea of invading Iraq," he says. Now he thinks the latest Republican maneuvering will cause "reductions in healthcare benefits. I've recently been on full-time Medicare, and I'm concerned. But to be honest, I need to study it some more to know how it will affect me."

Over at the Green Valley Public Library, friends Kenneth Hite and Julie Sissons are catching up on gossip in a shaded breezeway. Asked about the Medicare legislation, Hite offers a grab-bag of viewpoints as eclectic as his wardrobe. Leaning on a cane, wearing a green felt cowboy hat and sandals, he's "not worried, because I don't even use Medicare." A 75-year-old retired government employee, the self-proclaimed "Reverend" Hite prefers the holistic route to good health. "I use herbs for any medical problems I have," he says. Still, "I know I'm not for the Democrats."

A former flight attendant with United Airlines, Sissons, 64, says the company still covers her insurance. A salty sprite in a Polo T-shirt, stretch pants and a straw cowboy hat, she's glad to be independent--at least so far--from the government Medicare thicket. "But my best insurance?" she says, flicking the brim of her hat. "I walk 10 miles a day. That's what keeps me healthy."

As she heads out for another quick stroll, Warren Hanson, 86, a retired publishing salesman, is leaving the library with a stack of hardbacks. "Frankly, I'm not really for (the Medicare changes)," he says. "I rely on Medicare all the time for the things that come with getting old. And I think the Republicans are pushing their changes for the wrong reasons."

Mr. Hanson also criticizes the AARP ("and I'm a member") for backing the legislation, which he thinks will prove a windfall for the insurance and drug industries. As for the 2004 election, he's "leaning towards Howard Dean. Look at what a good job he did with these issues in Vermont."

There aren't many Howard Dean fans back at American Legion Post 66, where Jim Dunn is finishing a frosty beer. At 69, the retired Minneapolis cop still sits with the rigid posture of authority. "Nobody's sure how the Medicare thing is going to come down," he hollers above the raucous crowd. "But I don't think anybody I know is that worried about it either."

Then he turns, motioning the barmaid for another brewsky. "Hey," he says, grinning slightly, "the way I see it, whatever happens, happens."

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