Representative Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who has become a star in the Republican Party with his plan to overhaul Medicare, is emerging as a polarizing figure among Americans.
Twenty-six percent of people view the Wisconsin lawmaker unfavorably while 23 percent see him favorably, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted June 17-20.
The only public figures in the survey with higher net unfavorable ratings than Ryan, who six months ago was known chiefly to his southeast Wisconsin constituents and health-policy experts, were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“I don’t like the focus he’s made, and I don’t like the programs he’s playing with,” says poll respondent Jason Young, 37, a video game producer from Novato, California, and an independent. “Ryan’s plan is too Draconian, and I think the cuts on Medicare he’s proposing are unfair and unrealistic.”
Even so, Young and other respondents credit Ryan for proposing a plan to balance the federal budget, echoing praise from Republican leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner.
“It takes some intestinal fortitude to actually step forward with a plan when nobody else has,” says Ted Olsen, 44, a Lutheran minister from Kiel, Wisconsin, and an independent.
By a margin of 57 percent to 34 percent, poll respondents say they would be worse off if Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a system of subsidized private health coverage were adopted. Fifty-eight percent of independents, a critical voting bloc in recent elections, say they would be worse off.
That’s likely to encourage Democrats to bank their success in next year’s presidential and congressional races on tying Republicans to the Medicare plan, which was passed by the Republican-controlled House on April 15.
Ryan’s proposal for the federal health-insurance plan that serves seniors was approved with no Democratic support and all but four Republicans voting in favor. The Democratic-controlled Senate rejected it last month.
President Barack Obama’s new health-care law gets a more favorable reaction. The poll of 1,000 adults found that 51 percent of all Americans say that while the law may need modification, it shouldn’t be repealed, and another 11 percent say it should be left alone. That compares with 35 percent who want the new law overturned.
There is a strong partisan divide over whether the law should be repealed, with Democrats more unified than Republicans. Eighty-nine percent of Democrats say the law should stay in place, though most prefer some changes, while 64 percent of Republicans say it should be repealed. Sixty-one percent of independents support the plan, with most wanting modifications, while 35 percent oppose it.
“Health care is a basic human right,” said Edward Feikes, a 78-year-old retired school teacher from New Carlisle, Indiana. “Government has to be more involved than private insurance.”
Republicans have attacked the Obama plan, signed into law last year, as too costly and say its mandate that all Americans either obtain insurance or pay a fine is unconstitutional.
More Americans disapprove than approve of Obama’s overall handling of health care, by a 50 percent to 45 percent margin.
Americans are also divided by politics over the Ryan plan, which calls for converting the traditional Medicare program to a system of subsidized private coverage starting with people who turn 65 in 2022.
Forty-seven percent of Republicans say they’d be better off under the plan, while 46 percent say they would be worse off, according to the poll. Just 29 percent of Democrats say they would be better off. Forty-six percent of Americans under 35 say they would be better off under the proposal, while 61 percent of those 35 and older say they’d be worse off. Sixty-three percent of those 55 and older say they would be worse off, while 26 percent say it would be better for them.
Under the plan, new Medicare beneficiaries could select from a list of guaranteed coverage options, and the government would provide money to subsidize the cost of that plan.
Rachel McCulley, a 22-year-old employment consultant for the disabled and a Democrat, said many Americans would probably fare better under Ryan’s plan because they would have a broader array of health-care options.
“Consumer choice is very important,” she said. Still, McCulley, who lives in Bear, Delaware, has concerns about the financial impact on seniors if the program is privatized.
‘Why Medicare Exists’
“That’s why Medicare exists, for the people who can’t afford health care,” she says.
Ryan argues that his budget blueprint would allow the government to control the rate of growth of Medicare, one of the biggest drivers of the long-term U.S. deficit. Democrats say it would saddle the elderly with skyrocketing medical bills and limit their access to health care while doing little to control the underlying costs of the system.
Respondents say they trust Obama’s party, the Democrats, more than Republicans to do a better job of dealing with Medicare, by 43 percent to 34 percent, with 23 percent not sure. Independents give Democrats a 14-percentage-point advantage over Republicans when it comes to handling Medicare.
Embracing Some Parts
While Americans fear they would do worse under Ryan’s Medicare proposal, they embrace some of its provisions. About two-thirds of respondents from both parties say Congress and the president should implement means-testing, or reduce Medicare benefits for wealthy Americans, to shore up the program’s finances.
Public sentiment splits about evenly when it comes to placing new limits on medical services covered by Medicare, one of three options for adjusting the current system presented to survey respondents. Republicans are slightly more supportive of this measure, at 54 percent, compared with 46 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents.
The most unpopular of the three options is raising payroll taxes on employees and employers to help shore up Medicare, with 56 percent of Americans in opposition, compared with 41 percent favoring this option. A majority of Democrats, 53 percent, support this idea, while a strong majority of Republicans, 73 percent, are opposed.
The poll was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.