What the 1988 Congress touted as a triumph in health care is already coming back to haunt the lawmakers even before it has taken effect.

Senior citizens across the nation are waking up to the jarring fact that the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act passed in June, signed into law in July amid no little fanfare, and taking effect Jan. 1, offers them nothing in the area where they need help the most - long term nursing care - but hits them hard where they can least afford it, with drastically increased premiums.Senior citizens are one of the nation's best organized, most vocal political groups but they also found their No. 1 lobbying representative, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), dropped the ball on this issue.

The AARP worked long and hard for the measure, and many Congressmen went along with the bill because of the AARP's support.

It is becoming clear from the well-taken protests of senior citizens that the bill needs to be called up for an overhaul when Congress reconvenes, even though the measure didn't take effect until Jan. 1.

The thrust of the new law is to increase premiums on a sliding scale, with senior citizens in upper income groups taking the brunt of the increase. The premiums were supposed to be used to offset the costs of a medically catastrophic illness that would wipe out the limited financial reserves most seniors have set aside.

But its most telling impact, as the fine print on the law gets scrutinized, is that it does almost nothing to mitigate the financial effects of a long-term or catastrophic illness while still eating into elderly Americans' financial reserves.

The net effect is a loss for most senior citizens, whatever their income level. By the AARP's own estimate, only one in five Medicare beneficiaries will ever use the new services being offered. But just about all of the Medicare beneficiaries - 98 percent, according to one estimate - will pay for them.

Low-income senior citizens are faced with an increase in already hefty Medicare premiums. Middle- and upper-income senior citizens will see an even higher increase, depending on their income. Surveys show most of them already have the benefits the new law provides, or even better ones, through private carrier insurance agencies they finance themselves or retain from their pre-retirement employer.

Congress should admit its mistake, repeal the new law, and go back to the drawing board with efforts to help Americans deal financially with catastrophic illnesses.