Ryan pick ignites Medicare debate in key battleground state

Even in a state bombarded for months by campaign ads, Medicare wasn’t much of an issue in the presidential campaign until a week ago.

Then Mitt Romney selected Rep. Paul Ryan to be his running mate, and now Medicare is a top-of-mind issue with both camps running new campaign ads and debating the merits of their proposals for sustaining the cherished health care program for seniors.

President Barack Obama has accused Ryan of trying to gut health benefits to seniors in the budgets he’s gotten approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.

Romney and Ryan, in turn, have accused Obama of cutting $716 billion from Medicare to pay for the Affordable Care Act — referred to derisively by Republicans as “Obamacare.”

The debate matters in Ohio, a swing state with 1.9 million people who receive average annual Medicare benefits of $10,410, according to figures from the Alliance for Retired Americans. In 2008, Obama won Ohio by 262,224 votes.

Ryan, R-Wis., emerged as a major conservative voice in the Republican Party after his work on the GOP budget plans. But his Medicare plan was controversial. It called for converting Medicare into a voucher program, requiring those 55 or younger to seek private insurance on their own with a lump sum payment from the government.

A Pew Research survey released a month after Ryan’s original budget proposals found respondents 65 and older had a negative reaction to his plan to change Medicare: 51 percent opposed the plan, including 43 percent who opposed it strongly, compared with only 25 percent who favored the plan.

But it is not at all clear whether concern over Ryan’s proposals could alter the vote in Ohio.

“The knee-jerk reaction to all this is to say because it affects Medicare or might affect Medicare, older people will be less receptive to Romney and Ryan,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “But we don’t know that. That’s one of the things we’re going to find out about over the next few months.”

Before the Ryan selection, Brown said polling showed Romney held a decisive edge over Obama among older voters. Whether Romney maintains that lead may depend on how effective he and Ryan are in recasting the conversation about Medicare.

Brown said it would take some time for polling agencies to put together reliable surveys measuring Ryan’s impact on senior voters because “it’s a complicated question.”

“Romney/Ryan folks will try to change voters’ traditional views that Medicare is sacrosanct, and they will argue that if you don’t touch Medicare then the country’s finances are going to go boom!’’ Brown said. “We’ll see if it works.’’

Romney has said he doesn’t support all of the Ryan budget plan, but hasn’t spelled out his own plan for Medicare.

The Ryan budget changes wouldn’t affect retirees already claiming benefits, but Obama supporters have targeted those highly sought after senior voters with ads linking Romney to the Ryan plan and suggesting the proposed Medicare reforms are just the first step toward gutting benefits for current and future recipients.

In interviews last week, the Dayton Daily News didn’t find any Republicans who said they would change their votes out of concern for Medicare.

Jim Choate, 79, a Medicare beneficiary and long-time Kettering resident, said he welcomes Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket and feels little trepidation about his proposed Medicare changes.

“I’m almost 80, so it doesn’t have much impact on me anyway,” Choate said while shooting pool in the billiards room at the Charles I. Lathrem Senior Center last week. “I’d like to see it stay the way it is, if possible. But if it has to change, I have no concerns.”

Choate, a die-hard Republican, said he shares Ryan’s view that the government must act to rein in spending on entitlement programs like Medicare, even if it drives up health care costs for future generations. He doubts the changes would be so severe they’d push most seniors into poverty, and he doesn’t buy the argument that Republicans want to gut Medicare and leave seniors to fend for themselves.

Chaoate accused the Obama campaign of engaging in scare tactics, which, he said, are having little influence on him or his right-leaning friends.

“We see right past the scare tactics,” he said. “It’s not going to affect our vote one bit.”

In fact, Choate thinks Ryan gives the Romney campaign a much-needed “shot in the arm” that will encourage even higher turnout among Republican voters in the upcoming election.

“I was always a conservative, but Romney doesn’t seem to relate to the people like Ryan does,” he said.

Barbara Albers, a volunteer at the senior center, admits she didn’t know much about Ryan when he was announced as Romney’s running mate on Aug. 11. But she likes everything she’s heard about the vice presidential candidate since then.

“From what I’m hearing, he seems to be an intelligent young man with good ideas who’s not afraid to voice those ideas,” said Albers, 77. “Too many politicians just sit back and fall in line with party politics.”

Albers, who also relies on Medicare, said she’s not concerned about Ryan’s proposed changes to the health care program because he has at least attempted to address a problem that can’t be ignored indefinitely, noting that Medicare’s hospital insurance trust fund is projected to be depleted within the next decade.

She said she would have voted for Romney regardless of his running mate because her main goal is to unseat Obama, whom she believes hasn’t lived up to his promises to bring unemployment down and get the economy back on track.

But she said she was happy to see Ryan enter the race because he brings “energy and substance” that she thought was lacking from the Republican ticket.

While Ryan’s Medicare proposals may not have shifted many votes, they appear to have further polarized a sharply divided electorate in many cases.

Staunch Democrats Leo Parts, 84, and his wife, Mary Ann, 81, said Ryan’s selection has strengthened their resolve to vote for Obama, and they’re gravely concerned about how Ryan’s budget or similar proposals could affect future generations, including their sons.

“It would just drive up their health care costs, and they’re already sky high,” Mary Ann said.

Nationwide, Medicare’s costs per person increased by about 5 percent a year from 1999 to 2009, while the cost of similar benefits under private insurance rose about 7 percent, according to a recent report from the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

While Mary Ann Parts laments continued high unemployment and slow pace of economic growth, she blames Obama’s Republican predecessors for the state of the economy and the conditions under which the president took office.

“We think the guy that’s in the White House is doing as good of a job as anybody could do given the hand he was dealt,” she said. “Romney would just push us back.”

Regardless of which candidates they support, many voters say they are more concerned about job security and meeting expenses than whether Medicare as they know it will be available when they retire.

“At 40, it’s not a main concern for me,” said Beth Jones, a medical sales rep who stopped at the The Greene Town Center in Beavercreek during her lunch hour last week. “My husband has been out of work twice; the last time for a year and a half. We need more reforms in terms of creating good jobs and stimulating the economy. That’s what I’m concerned about.”

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