Democrats and Republicans took their Medicare messages-refined through countless hours of focus groups and public polling-on the road last week in a preview of what is sure to be one of this fall's biggest political battles.
Republicans argued across the country that reforms were needed to save the Medicare program, while Democrats claimed the GOP was gutting Medicare to pay for a tax cut.
Meanwhile, provider groups are shaping their own Medicare reform plans to give to GOP House leaders later this month.
Republicans kicked off their campaign at a forum in Atlanta where Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich sounded the GOP theme that the Medicare program is going broke and reforms are needed. Gingrich quoted a report by the trustees of the Medicare hospital trust fund predicting the fund would run out of money in 2002.
Gingrich spoke later than planned after a demonstration led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and members of the Service Employees International Union disrupted the forum.
At one point Gingrich said the GOP plan would be released in September; at another point he pushed the date back to October.
Gingrich criticized Democrats for releasing information that said seniors will have to pay an average of about $1,000 more for Medicare because of the $270 billion in Medicare spending restrictions over seven years called for in the GOP budget.
According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, Medicare will grow more than 10% annually over the next seven years, from $176 billion in 1995 to more than $320 billion in 2002.
The GOP budget would reduce the rate of growth to less than 7% per year. Per-capita spending would increase from $4,800 per beneficiary to about $6,300.
The Democrats began their own campaign, calling the GOP Medicare plan a front for insurance company interests.
"These money interests are the principal and driving force in the Medicare debate," Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) charged.
Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.) charged that "the guy who was the father of `Harry and Louise' is not the father of Republican Medicare policy," referring to Willis Gradison, president of the Health Insurance Association of America. The group sponsored last year's influential ads featuring a yuppie couple, Harry and Louise, worrying about healthcare reform.
Democrats also warned that they would not negotiate with Republicans on Medicare reforms until the $270 billion in tax cuts was dropped from the GOP budget.