News / USA

Health Care Program for Seniors Emerges as Key Election Issue

Greg Flakus
The November U.S. presidential election may turn on how voters react to one key proposal by Republicans involving the  popular Medicare program, which provides government-subsidized health care to citizens 65 years and older. Budget analysts from left and right agree that the program faces financial stress as large numbers of so-called baby boomers reach the age of eligibility. But they disagree on what should be done.

At the University Village Senior Living Community Clinic in Tampa, Florida, Hugh Clark gets his blood checked regularly.

Having had heart problems, he relies on Medicare and opposes any plan to change its status as a government-run program.

"There are some things that are better run by the government than would be run privately," he said.

His friend and neighbor, Ann Cook, agrees. She says she is unimpressed by the Republican promise to preserve the program as it is for those 55 years of age or older.

"I care very much about what happens to coming generations. I am not selfish enough to care only because they say it won't affect us," she said.

But she recognizes the challenge facing the program as government revenues fail to keep up with the numbers of people reaching retirement age.

"You probably have to raise the age incrementally a little bit because people live longer and work longer," she said.

The Republican Medicare reform proposal is contained in a budget plan developed by the party's vice presidential nominee, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who spoke to the convention here in Tampa Wednesday.

"We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it's there for my mom today. Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it," he said.

Ryan's plan would eventually transform Medicare into an agency that provides funds for seniors to use in selecting health insurance from private companies.

Some young people like University of Tampa student Christian Root agree with Republicans about the need to cut federal spending.

But even Root wonders if the Republican plan is fair to his generation.

"If I am going to be paying the same as my parents did, I would like to receive those same benefits because I feel entitled to them," he said.

But Florida Congressman Dennis Ross says the program has to be reformed.

"If we leave it alone, it's going to die. It's going to be bankrupt in 10 years," he said.

Ross says Mitt Romney and Republican candidates for Congress will have to overcome voter fears that Medicare will be destroyed by their plan.

"If we give them an honest assessment of the economic situation, of Medicare today and where it will be next year and how we will ensure it will be there, I believe the American public will be with us," he said.

Ross acknowledges, however, that this may be a tough sell with voters, especially those like Ann Cook. She sees Republicans vowing to eliminate programs like President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act - also known as Obamacare - without offering a clear alternative.

"I have not heard these folks say anything about what they are doing for the uninsured," he said.

In the end, the election may depend on voter perceptions about whether the Republicans offer the best hope to save Medicare or a threat to destroy it.

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