After weeks of pounding on each other over Medicare in the controlled climate of Washington, Democrats and Republicans last week took their fight to the nation's airwaves, launching advertising campaigns that accuse each other of misleading the public.
Radio ads sponsored by the Republican National Committee are running in the districts of 11 House Democrats. The ads accuse the Democrats of ignoring the "looming bankruptcy" of the Medicare program and argue that reform is needed to save the program.
At the same time the Democratic National Committee is launching an $850,000 television advertising campaign in 13 states attacking the as-yet-unreleased Republican Medicare reform plan.
The advertisements say the GOP plan will cost seniors who want to stay in traditional fee-for-service Medicare an extra $600 per year. Seniors will also have to pay an additional $1,700 per year for home care, the ad claims.
"The American people are very, very skeptical of $270 billion being taken out of this program," said Don Fowler, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Republicans have formally challenged the Democratic ads in a letter sent to television stations in the areas where the Democratic ads were scheduled to run.
Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour wrote that Democratic claims of about $600 in additional charges per year represented "a conspiracy to deceive."
Although GOP leaders such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) have said recently that seniors will have to pay a modest extra charge, Barbour said the amount would not compare at all" with what Democrats say it will be.
Republicans also disputed another tenet of the Democratic campaign. In one ad, Democrats claim that President Clinton's Medicare reform plan, which the White House said will save $124 billion over seven years, will protect benefits and is "moral, good and right."
But Republicans say that the White House deceived the public when it said its budget would take only $124 billion from what would otherwise have been spent on Medicare.
Those numbers are based on pro-jections by the White House, not by the Congressional Budget Office. According to Barbour, if the CBO numbers are used, the Clinton plan actually reduces Medicare spending by about $190 billion, compared with the $270 billion in savings in the GOP budget.
Absent any reform, the CBO projects that Medicare spending will grow at an average rate of more than 10% per year, from $176 billion this year to more than $325 billion in 2002.
"The gap just isn't that wide," Barbour said, referring to the budget trims under the Clinton and GOP plans.
The Democrats' case is built around the issue of which party can be trusted with Medicare.
"Make no mistake, Medicare faces a huge crisis," said Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.), during a Democratic Medicare forum held last week in the House Ways and Means Committee room on Capitol Hill. Stark is the ranking minority member and former chairman of the panel's health subcommittee.
"The crisis I refer to, of course, is the Republicans' newfound concern for destroying Medicare, a program that they have been attempting to destroy for the last 30 years, ever since they fought in this room to prevent Medicare from beginning," Stark said.