Republicans' proposed Medicare voucher system, which experts say would shift more costs to beneficiaries, has set off a firestorm of opposition from older Americans and brought loud protests from Democrats — a response that for the moment has stymied Republicans' timetable for forcing the issue.
See also: Senate rejects GOP's Medicare proposal.
Under the proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and passed by the House, future Medicare enrollees now younger than 55 would no longer receive guaranteed benefits. Instead, the government would provide a set amount of money for them to buy their own private insurance.
While the Senate did not plan to seriously consider the proposal, Republican leaders in the House sent mixed messages, with some saying a Medicare overhaul should remain on the table during negotiations over the national debt, and others saying it should be shelved until the 2012 elections. But in mid-May, Republicans began a series of ads echoing Ryan's warning: "Unless something is done, the red ink is going to destroy our economy."
President Obama and top Democrats argued that the voucher plan would "end Medicare as we know it." An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that by 2030, under Ryan's voucher system, typical 65-year-olds would pay 68 percent of the cost of their Medicare coverage out of pocket, compared with the 25 percent they pay now.
Angry older Americans confronted Republican members of Congress at town hall meetings during the spring recess. Several opinion polls found that two of three current beneficiaries prefer to keep Medicare as it is now.
"I think there's a nervousness among seniors that if Congress ends Medicare as they know it for younger people, they could also decide to do away with it for everybody else," says Robert Blendon, Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis.
Patricia Barry is a senior editor with the AARP Bulletin.