Medicare, long taboo for change talk, now in discussion

By on August 31, 2012

For years, Medicare was part of the “third rail” of Florida politics – the untouchable subject in a state with so many elderly voters, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

For the Romney-Ryan ticket, it apparently won’t be.

GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan said in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night that the debate over Medicare is one that the nation must have, and signaled there’s no intent to shy away from proposals by both Ryan and presidential candidate Mitt Romney that would change Medicare to a “fixed-amount” grant that seniors could use to get private insurance, or as some would call it, a voucher program.

Florida Republicans at the convention have acknowledged – at least some of them – that the issue is dicey in the huge swing state that also happens to be loaded with people who rely on Medicare. The Romney proposal wouldn’t affect them – it wouldn’t apply, if put in place, to anyone now over age 55, under the candidate’s current plan.

But for those who have long taken it for granted that expensive health care for older Americans will be paid for directly by the government in the same way it has been for years, the prospect will still make some nervous, even if they won’t be personally affected. The details – including the critical one about who would be included and who wouldn’t – may get lost in the din of a campaign.

“It doesn’t scare me,” Barbara Sullivan, a resident of the big retirement community The Villages, said this week after attending a breakfast event with the Florida delegation.

She said she appreciated Ryan’s “honesty” in being willing to talk about the issue, and even went to see Ryan when he appeared in The Villages shortly after being named as Romney’s running mate.

She also actively pays attention to politics, so she can rattle off the GOP talking points – that if the entitlement program isn’t changed, it ultimately will be in danger anyway.

She also is familiar with the other Republican claim, that the Obama administration is also endangering Medicare, by siphoning money from the program to help pay for the federal health care law.

Republicans say President Obama’s plan reduces the future growth of Medicare by more than $700 billion, which Ryan said was sacrificing Medicare “to pay for a new entitlement that we didn’t even ask for.”

The Obama campaign says the Medicare savings, contained in the health-care overhaul the president signed into law in 2010, will come from efficiencies and not reduced benefits.

But while Sullivan says talk by Republicans of a fundamental overhaul of Medicare doesn’t scare her – she acknowledges that it might actually give another group some difficulties: younger voters.

“It scares my grandchildren,” Sullivan admitted. But she said, making changes that affect future beneficiaries is smart. “They’ll have enough time to work it out,” before they reach Medicare eligibility age, she said.

Some Florida Republican politicians – particularly younger ones – appear ready to go along with the Romney-Ryan message on Medicare changes, even though they live and have to run for election in a state where the issue has long been so off limits.

“You have to address this issue head-on,” said Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, one of the state’s top ranking GOP politicians, who also served with Ryan on the Budget Committee when he was in Congress. “You have to make changes … preserve Medicare. I think the electorate has matured. It’s a highly sensitive issue, but people understand reforms need to be made to save it.”

Obama Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter told reporters in Tampa on Thursday that Republicans trying to win Florida “know how vulnerable they are about their plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program and how vulnerable they are with seniors.”

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