En Español\ Barack Obama and Mitt Romney discussed the future of Medicare and Social Security, the health of the economy and Washington gridlock — all major concerns for older Americans. (As a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, AARP neither endorses nor contributes to political candidates.) Presidential nominees
Mitt Romney will face a slew of thorny problems, ranging from unemployment to Washington gridlock, from debates over health care management to retirement programs, if he becomes the nation's 45th president. And Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and successful businessman, has refined this pitch: Been there. Done that.
The Republican nominee, 65, cites his business experience and record as a GOP governor in a heavily Democratic state as proof he can take his skills to the national level. Romney, whose campaign has tapped the frustration older voters in particular feel over the struggling economy, argues that he is a problem solver who can fix the nation's troubles in the same way he managed the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and investments at Bain Capital, where he was CEO. In virtually every arena, from taming health care costs to growing the economy, Romney returned to three basic principles: pare the federal government, give states more control and let the free market work.
"When I was elected governor of Massachusetts, the state was in severe disarray," Romney said in an exclusive written interview with the AARP Bulletin. "I made the hard decisions that brought state spending under control and got Massachusetts' economy back on track.'' The nominee was unable to sit down with the Bulletin in person, but provided email answers to questions.
This perennial issue took center stage in the campaign when Romney picked Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is author of a House budget plan that would revamp the $550 billion-a-year Medicare program by offering recipients the option of accepting a government subsidy to buy health insurance on the private market. Those 55-plus would not be affected, and people could stay on traditional Medicare if they preferred. Romney embraces Ryan's general approach, saying "competition" will bring costs under control.
"The proposal we are running on honors Medicare's promise to today's seniors and makes no changes for those who are enrolled in the program today or who will enroll in the next decade. For future generations, we protect and strengthen Medicare by allowing the power of competition and choice to put the program on a sustainable path," Romney said. But he would not include the $716 billion trim in future Medicare spending that is part of both the Ryan budget and President Obama's Affordable Care Act. About the lost savings, he said the market would drive down costs.
"Choice and competition have worked to reduce costs and increase quality in virtually every sector of our economy. They can work in Medicare as well. We see it happening today in the Medicare Part D prescription drug program," Romney said. "Choice and competition," along with "strong patient protections," will ensure that Medicare beneficiaries get the care they need, he added.
Romney approaches the so-called third rail of American politics by offering two changes he said will extend the fiscal health of the program: raising the retirement age and means-testing for benefits. Social Security benefits should continue to grow, Romney said, but the growth should be smaller for higher-income retirees.
Both ideas, Romney said, "will not raise taxes and will not affect today's seniors or those nearing retirement."
Health care reform
Romney can't say often enough that he wants to get rid of "Obamacare." Although he signed a similar law when he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney said the federal law "takes what's broken in health care and makes it worse." Romney believes the law damages the economy by putting a job-killing, undue burden on businesses by penalizing those larger firms that don't insure their employees.
Some parts of the new law — such as the ban on denying insurance coverage based on preexisting conditions, the requirement that insurers allow children up to 26 to remain on their parents' policies and closing the Part D doughnut hole — are very popular, despite deep public divisions over the Affordable Care Act as a whole. Romney doesn't see the need for the under-26 requirement, noting that "the market is already responding to consumer preferences, and many insurance companies have announced plans to extend coverage for this group." Romney also said he wants to guarantee coverage to patients with preexisting conditions as long as they have had "continuous coverage."
Tax and legal reforms would result in lower costs, making health insurance more affordable to those without it, Romney said. He endorsed reforming medical malpractice liability, allowing people to cross state lines to buy health insurance, and encouraging small businesses to "band together to increase their negotiating power" when purchasing insurance. While Romney also favors increased spending for National Institutes of Health research, he wants Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and those with disabilities, to be block grants for states — a move he said would give them more flexibility. Romney spoke fondly of his time visiting ill friends as a minister in his church, and added, "I learned there that government is no substitute for community."
Deficit and gridlock
Romney knows what it's like to be in hostile political territory: He was a GOP governor in a state with a heavily Democratic legislature. He worked with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on the state's health care law. Romney noted that he cast "over 800 vetoes when necessary" (although more than 700 of them were overturned by the legislature) and said he worked with the legislature "when possible." He did not address the question of dealing with a deadlocked U.S. Congress, although he has criticized both Obama and congressional Republicans for agreeing to mandate a $1.2 trillion cut in future federal spending.
Romney's economic and employment approach reflects his belief that taxes should be low and government involvement limited, and that programs are often better run when states and individuals have more control. Romney promises to create 12 million new jobs in the next four years by cutting the deficit, supporting small-business development and achieving energy independence by 2020.
The former governor wants to block-grant existing job-training programs so they can be run by states and "built around initiatives led by the private sector." Romney proposes creating "personal reemployment accounts," money that qualified unemployed people could spend in the way that works for them — be it community college courses or technical training. "These accounts encourage unemployed individuals to take ownership of their own careers," Romney said. Overall economic growth, coupled with such jobs programs, would close the employment gap for older Americans, Romney said.
Susan Milligan is a Washington-based freelance reporter and writer.