Twenty-six elderly folks sat quietly on hard plastic chairs Tuesday morning at the Philadelphia headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to watch a live broadcast of a town-hall meeting with President Obama.
The president was trying to address doubts many seniors have on the new health-care law and answer their lingering questions, including what's up with the money that will be arriving in some of their mailboxes.
Starting this week, rebate checks of $250 are being printed, cut, and sent to an estimated 80,000 Medicare beneficiaries who have reached the now infamous "doughnut hole," as the gap in Medicare prescription-drug coverage is known.
"It's better than nothing, I guess," said silver-haired Marlene Wilkerson of Philadelphia, who gathered at the union's Walnut Street headquarters with a group of retired city workers. She declined to give her age.
Groups such as hers were meeting throughout the country to hear the president explain new Medicare benefits.
In his talk from Wheaton, Md., Obama announced an ambitious effort to cut in half the waste, fraud, and abuse in Medicare by the end of 2012.
He also warned against repealing the health-care law, as some Republicans are proposing. "They'd roll back the rebate to help you pay for your medicine if you fall in the doughnut hole," he said.
"They'd roll back the free preventive care for Medicare recipients. And . . . they'd roll back all of the insurance provisions that make sure that insurance companies aren't cheating folks who are paying their premiums."
Republicans quickly criticized the president's latest effort to promote the law. "It's another in a long line of false starts and mishaps for the Obama administration's attempt to sell its government takeover of health care," House Minority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said Tuesday on his website.
In Philadelphia, the group of mostly retired African Americans watched as a small-business owner, Fran Garfinkle, introduced the president after describing her own experience going down the complex rabbit hole of Medicare prescription drugs. She will be among those receiving a rebate check.
"I'm sure she owes more than that," said Wilkerson. "It's not really even a drop in the bucket."
The doughnut hole is the gap in coverage that requires most Medicare enrollees to pay 100 percent of their prescription-drug costs after they have exceeded their spending limit. They then must pay for all their medication until they qualify for catastrophic insurance. This year, the gap begins at $2,830.
"They just don't understand it," said Virginia Brown, vice president of AFSCME Philadelphia District Council Retiree Chapter No. 47. "That's why I invited so many people."
Brown collected and submitted questions from the members before the start of the "tele-town hall."
"We have seniors who are making decisions about whether to buy food or medication," Brown said.
Softening the doughnut hole with a $250 check is just the beginning for the new health-care law. Over the next 10 years, the hole will gradually close. By 2020, the coverage gap will be gone.
Next year, Medicare recipients also will receive 50 percent discounts on all brand-name drugs, and the government will start subsidizing generic drugs. By 2020, Medicare recipients will be required to pay only 25 percent of the cost of their generic drugs.
But for now, seniors still report making compromises over drugs.
Betty Flanagan, 87, a retiree from the Department of Recreation, explained her simple method for avoiding the dreaded gap. When she got dangerously close to the limit in December, she said, she skipped drugs for a month until she again became eligible for coverage.
Luckily, Flanagan, who wore a lavender pantsuit and was seated in her motorized wheelchair, did not report any ill effects.
"Sometimes we old folk have got to be slick," she said.