As Mitt Romney campaigns in Ohio today, he’s facing undecided voters like Doug Phelps who worry the Republican presidential candidate and his newly chosen running mate will make big changes to a program they cherish.
Without Medicare, Phelps, a 69-year-old barber from suburban Columbus, could never have afforded the $171,000 heart surgery he had last year -- his coverage combined with his wife’s health insurance allowed them to pay less than $50 for the procedure. Now, Phelps wants to know more details about both Romney’s and President Barack Obama’s plans for Medicare.
“It works,” Phelps said of the program in an interview at the Village Squire Barbershop in Grandview Heights. “I don’t know how people are going to get by if it’s not there.”
Even though current seniors such as Phelps wouldn’t be affected by Republican overhaul proposals, it’s a key issue for them and one at the forefront of the presidential race following Romney’s decision to name Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his vice presidential running mate.
Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, is the architect of a fiscal plan that includes steep spending cuts and the eventual transformation of Medicare into a federal subsidy for private coverage. Ryan’s plan wouldn’t affect current recipients or those 55 years and older.
Democrats say Ryan’s proposal would amount to scrapping Medicare for future generations, and that it would increase costs or reduce benefits for many seniors.
Romney, visiting Ohio on the final day of a four-day tour of electoral battleground states, is working to define and defend his position on Medicare before the Democratic narrative can take hold. He says the Republican push to revamp Medicare would offer greater choice and opportunity to future retirees, while charging that Obama is weakening the program with cuts.
At a coal mine in Beallsville, Ohio, Romney charged that Obama had “raided” the Medicare trust fund by using more than $700 billion of savings from the program to finance the new health-care law.
“When he ran for president, he said he’d protect Medicare, but did you know that he has taken $716 billion out of the Medicare trust fund,” Romney told a crowd that included dozens of hardhat-wearing coal miners at the Century Mine. “He’s used it to pay for Obamacare, a risky unproven federal government takeover of health care. And if I’m president of the United States, we’re putting the $716 billion back.”
His campaign, working to turn a potential liability into an asset, also released a new television advertisement defending the Medicare plan Romney and Ryan have espoused.
“The Romney-Ryan plan protects Medicare benefits for today’s seniors and strengthens the plan for the next generation,” its narrator says.
Ryan said the issue is a winning one for the Republican ticket “because we’re the ones who are offering a plan to save Medicare.”
In a Fox News interview to air tonight, Ryan said: “This is a debate we want to have, and that’s a debate we’re going to win.”
Obama’s campaign said the Republican plan would hurt seniors. It “radically restructures Medicare,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt told CNN last night. “It turns it into a voucher program, increases the out-of-pocket cost for seniors by thousands of dollars each year. And the president is committed to its preservation,” LaBolt said.
The debate could affect the campaign’s outcome in Ohio, where 17 percent of the electorate in the 2008 presidential were older than 65, and 39 percent were between 45 and 64 years of age, according to exit polls. Ohio, with 18 electoral votes, has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1964, and no Republican has won the White House without carrying the state.
“It is going to enliven a critical vote in the state, given the age of the state population,” said William Binning, former Mahoning County Republican chairman and a political scientist at Youngstown State University.
Binning said while the impact of the Medicare debate could only be on the margins, Republicans face a more challenging task in explaining their plans for the program than Democrats do criticizing it as “ending welfare as we know it.”
Gladys Diamond, 71, of Columbus, said she couldn’t afford health-care coverage without Medicare. An Obama supporter, she is worried about cuts to the program if Romney is elected, especially with the addition of Ryan to the ticket.
“He’s a millionaire, he doesn’t care for a poor woman like me,” Diamond, a volunteer at the Gillie senior center in Columbus, said of Romney. Ryan is “worse the Romney” because he “wants to cut everything,” she said.
Republicans need to emphasize the choice between saving Medicare for future generations compared with Obama cutting the program, said Mark Weaver, an Ohio Republican consultant.
“There’s no doubt that the Democrats will have a demagogic advantage because if the people aren’t paying attention, they might believe the lie that Republicans want to do away with Medicare,” Weaver said in a telephone interview. “Luckily, Ohio voters are smart enough to see through that charade.”
Joyce Rankin, 70, a retired administrative assistant at Ohio State University who supports Romney, said that while she loves Medicare, changes are needed to preserve the program for younger people. She likes Romney’s selection of Ryan for that reason, Rankin said.
“Americans are ready to address this issue,” she said in an interview while sipping iced tea outside a coffee shop in suburban Columbus. “I’m glad we’re finally addressing it.”
Even so, Ryan’s proposal to cut Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor, would hit many seniors now. The program provides care to poor children, pregnant women, the disabled -- and some 6 million seniors who rely on it for nursing-home care, home health aides and other services.
Ryan’s budget would cut the program beginning next year, with the reductions totaling about $800 billion over the next decade. That’s about one-third of projected spending on the program.
There’s a double standard when it comes to protecting Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries from cuts, said Howard Gleckman, a resident fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute. That’s because Medicaid beneficiaries are much poorer, and the program tends to be less well understood, he said.
“The very poor, frail elderly aren’t very good at lobbying for themselves, and neither are their family members, and it’s very easy to forget about these people,” Gleckman said.