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GOP Retirees Struggle With Health Care

The first three years of retirement were a frightening experience for Peggy Lambert. She was repeatedly denied proper health insurance because of preexisting health problems.

It's a nightmare scenario for millions of older Americans, only with a good ending in this case.

"All I can say is that when I turned 65 it was one of the happiest days of my life because I could go on Medicare and then get supplemental insurance," said the retired registered nurse from Maryville, Tenn., now 67.

Predicaments like Lambert's underscore why health care is a primary concern among retirees nationwide, regardless of income level or political affiliation. Lambert and her husband enjoy a "very comfortable" income in retirement and she is a national committeewoman-elect of the Republican Party.

The Associated Press interviewed a handful of retiree delegates at the Republican convention to sample their views on health care and other issues that most concern them.

Not all would put health care at the top of the list - just as Republicans and Democrats disagree on how to address soaring medical costs.

But AARP, the organization for older Americans, says access to affordable quality health care and lifetime economic security are by far the two most important issues for its members and retirees.

"The real problem with the health care system is just skyrocketing costs," said spokesman Jim Dau. "People get incredibly anxious about 'Do I have enough?"'

It's an important question because the United States has the highest per-capita health care spending of any nation. Health insurance premiums have increased 72 percent since 2001 and Medicare premiums have doubled in the same time, according to the AARP.

Dau warns that many people underestimate their health care costs under Medicare and that substantial resources are still needed.

"Medicare only covers on average half of your out-of-pocket expenses," he said. "So for people who think 'I made it to 65, I qualify for Medicare, I'll be OK,' they could be looking at a rude wakeup."

It was high risk as much as high cost that prevented Lambert and her husband John, 68, from getting the insurance they needed.

Selling their rock quarry business five years ago, which cost them access to group insurance, proved to be a mistake because insurers wouldn't give them individual policies due to John's history of cancer, their age and other health issues.

After a period with no coverage, they ultimately had to go to a high-risk insurance company and pay more than $500 a month for a policy that entitled them to hospital admission but maximum coverage of $25,000 - a ceiling that can be reached quickly with a serious ailment. Prescription drugs ran another $400 to $500 monthly.

Lambert, a member of the convention's platform committee, had no specific recommendation when asked what should be done about health care and whether the government should play a greater role.

"I'm not sure I know what the solution is. I just know what the problem is," she said from St. Paul, Minn.

"But I can say this: It's a terrifying experience to know that you have no coverage, and you limit your trips to the doctor, and there's just so many things you can cut back on."

The two parties' presidential candidates offer contrasting approaches.

Republican John McCain advocates a refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to make health insurance more affordable, but no mandate for universal coverage. Democrat Barack Obama wants mandatory coverage for children and aims for universal coverage by requiring employers to share the costs of insuring workers.

As the oldest convention delegate, former Montana Gov. Tim Babcock, 88, says access to health care isn't as large a problem in this country as the Democrats portray, and feels they are trying to play it up for political purposes.

However, he said: "Federal programs that help the really needy, we need to provide for that."

Babcock and his wife Betty, live in Helena on Social Security and a small pension he gets from consulting for Occidental Petroleum. He said they're readily able to meet health care costs and benefit from free prescriptions he's entitled to as a World War II veteran.

"It's an emotional thing that the Democrats like to build up, that everybody doesn't have health care. I think I was about 40 years old before I realized there was such a thing as health insurance, and I got along all right," said the retired governor, who served in office from 1962-69.

John Ortega of Bettendorf, Iowa, who retired in 2006 as an information technology specialist for an insurance company, also doesn't favor government steps to lower health insurance costs. The 67-year-old Army veteran receives Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Administration insurance.

"I think small or regular business can handle that better than the government can," he said.

But he does advocate help for the needy and is a volunteer board member of Iowa's Hawkeye program, which provides insurance for low-income children with funding from Medicare and the state.

"When people say health insurance is not available, it certainly is available to people who don't have a lot of money," he said.