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Candidates Court Seniors On Medicare

Last November, Romney unveiled his own premium-support plan, which like Ryan’s, would provide a set amount to people to purchase coverage. Romney has promised that future seniors who like the fee-for-service Medicare plan can opt for that, instead of purchasing private insurance. He offered no details about how that option would work, however, and critics say that capping the government’s contribution would likely mean that beneficiaries pay more for the same benefits. In December, the candidate embraced a similar proposal by Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden, D- Ore.

Beneficiaries would be on the hook for paying the difference if they sought more expensive plans; however, Romney said that all health plans would have to offer coverage at least comparable to what the program provides today.

Supporting the Ryan-Wyden compromise has removed the “bull’s eye” target from Romney’s back that “Democrats had planned to use,” since he would preserve traditional fee-for-service Medicare for those who want it, said Gail Wilensky, a campaign adviser to 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, and head of the Medicare program in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Greenberg, however, doesn’t think so. She predicts Democrats will attack Romney in the general election for his statement last year that he would vote for the original Ryan plan. “It doesn’t matter that he now supports Ryan-Wyden,” she said.

Santorum, Gingrich Endorse Ryan’s Ideas

Santorum has also been a vocal advocate of Ryan’s ideas, and has made no effort to soften the House budget plan to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters, for instance, by keeping traditional Medicare as an option. “It is a plan that says innovation with insurance companies and consumers drive down costs, instead of having this government-run Medicare system. ... You have Medicare driving the entire health care system in this country and it’s crushing it,” he said last month in Iowa.

But while Santorum praised the House Republican plan, Gingrich initially called it radical. "That is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options," he said on NBC’s Meet the Press last May. Gingrich later commended Ryan for partnering with Wyden to keep Medicare’s fee-for-service as an option going forward.

President Obama, meanwhile, has spent the last two years trying to counter the Republican narrative that the health law cuts Medicare coverage. He asserts the law slows the rate of spending increases, largely at the expense of medical providers and gives seniors new benefits, such as free preventive services and lower prescription costs.

The president says he wants to preserve Medicare’s current guarantee to cover set benefits, but curb costs through greater efficiencies, such as strengthening incentives for doctors, hospitals and other health care providers to give high-quality care, and cutting expenditures for those who get care through the Medicare Advantage program. One quarter of Medicare recipients are enrolled in these mostly private managed care plans, and the government spends on average 7 percent more per beneficiary in those plans.

In his budget proposal, the president sought additional savings by increasing premiums for higher-income beneficiaries, raising the price for some home health care services and increasing efforts to reduce fraud and waste. In addition, people who buy the most generous policies to supplement Medicare coverage, called Medigap, would pay a surcharge because such policies have been found to increase use of health care.

The tug-of-war for the senior vote will only intensify as the general election draws closer. Senior voters turn out in much larger numbers than younger Americans. Thirty-four percent of voters in the 2010 congressional election were age 60 or older, even though this age group accounts for only 24 percent of the adult population, Blendon wrote in a July article in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Next: The views of older voters are important.>>

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