Democrats and Republicans trade barbs over health care’s cost to seniors

Jon Ward Contributor
Font Size:

Democrats and Republicans have been using scare language in the last week to frighten seniors about Medicare reforms, despite a plea from President Obama to stop playing politics and fix the nation’s problem with runaway entitlement spending.

Democrats have attacked Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as the end of Medicare “as we know it.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flung the charge at Ryan in a speech on Friday.

While Pelosi’s criticism is based in fact, the tone is similar to the one Republicans have used for months to bludgeon the president’s health-care reform plan.

Republicans have for months cast about $500 billion in Medicare cuts – part of Obama’s health-care plan – as slashing benefits for seniors. But most Republicans agree the cuts must happen. They just wanted them directed toward reducing the deficit instead of expanding entitlement spending.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Sunday accused Obama of wanting to “slash” Medicare benefits, even though a spokesman for the Kentucky Republican called the cuts “savings” in a follow-up e-mail and said they should go toward shoring up Medicare.

“Both sides seem to find it irresistible to scare seniors. It makes it awfully difficult to actually fix these programs that are beneficial to seniors,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, an advocacy group that promotes fiscal government use of taxpayer dollars.

Obama complained, during his question-and-answer session with House Republicans last month, that the GOP was using scare tactics to turn seniors against his health-care reforms.

“We’re not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know … the other party is being irresponsible, the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens,” Obama said.

Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security already consume 40 percent of each year’s federal budget. Without reform, that percentage could increase to about 60 percent by 2050, according to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. And Medicare’s fund for hospital care is scheduled to run out of money in 2017.

The president at the Baltimore meeting singled out Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, for putting forward his own budget proposal in which he puts Medicare — which currently has about $38 trillion in unfunded liabilities — on the road to fiscal solvency. Obama praised the Ryan plan as a serious piece of policy work even as he said he did not agree with it philosophically.

Obama also predicted that Ryan would likely come under political fire, but warned that would not be a helpful direction for the political discussion to go in.

“If we’re going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can’t start off by figuring out, A, who’s to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side,” Obama said.

But Pelosi, a California Democrat, looked to be doing exactly what the president had warned against in a speech to the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting on Friday.

Pelosi called Ryan’s proposal “the Republican budget” even though it does not have the party’s official imprimatur, and said it “provides tax breaks for the wealthy, ends Medicare as we know it and privatizes Social Security.”

“Here they go again rehashing the same failed Bush policies,” she said.

Democrats have now made it a regular talking point that Republicans want to end Medicare “as we know it.”

A Pelosi spokesman defended her statement, saying it was “the same position that [White House Budget Director Peter] Orszag, for example, stated.”

Yet Orszag’s description of Ryan’s plan was quite different.

“His plan succeeds in addressing our long-term fiscal problem, which is a significant accomplishment,” said Orszag, who did not in the president’s budget deliver a plan for long-term fiscal reform but instead said a fiscal commission would have to tackle the problem.

Orszag described his differences with Ryan’s plan this way: “It is a dramatically different approach in which much more risk is loaded onto individuals and in which the Medicare program in particular is dramatically changed from its current structure.”

Ryan himself has said that payments under his voucher system would not keep pace with the current rate of Medicare spending, but argues that making insurers and health care providers accountable to consumers for their rates would drive down costs.

The plan aims to increase coverage for lower-income Americans, because it is weighted toward income and provides greater benefits the more serious one’s medical condition.

“People have can vigorous debates about whether it would work. But it’s not a good idea by starting out saying the other side wants to destroy the social safety net and put seniors at risk,” said Bixby.

The question, then, is whether Obama and Orszag knew that their repeated mentions of Ryan’s plan — Orszag went out of his way numerous times to talk about it unprompted — would make him the target he has become.

The White House did not comment on this question when asked. But Republicans are holding the president responsible.

“The president is the head of his party. He elevated Representative Ryan’s plan and then his party has mis-characterized and attacked and distorted it when that was the exact thing that the president warned against,” said Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney.

“What has transpired was precisely what the president warned against,” Sweeney said.

Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, also criticized the president for submitting a budget proposal that does not go out on a limb to prescribe tough fixes for runaway entitlement costs.

“It is totally irresponsible. It’s malfeasance, to send up a budget that you know is fiscally unsustainable, lead the nation into insolvency without any solutions at all,” Gregg told reporters last week, referring to the budget’s suggestion that a bipartisan commission is necessary for long term solutions.

“He’s the president of the United States. He’s supposed to be the leader, not wait for other people to give him ideas,” Gregg said.

Whether it was intentional or not, the president’s approach has redounded to Democrats’ benefit, at least politically.

“Democrats have been on the defensive lately and they obviously see this as an opportunity to change the conversation back in their direction,” Bixby said.

Republicans, however, have little room to point fingers. Even a senior aide to a conservative Republican senator said that the GOP leadership in both the House and Senate has spent much of the last year playing politics with Medicare and health care in general.

“When Democrats accused the GOP of not having a plan, that’s 90 percent spin,” the aide said. “But the 10 percent that’s true is the fact that our leadership did decline to put forward a clear robust plan, because politically they decided to run against Obama care.”