Sounds like the Democrats have fired some of their first Medicare shots at Republicans in the 2016 election campaign.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Deborah Ross attacked North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr on Thursday for his 2012 proposal, the Seniors Choice Act, to turn Medicare into a defined-contribution, “premium support” program and gradually raise the eligibility age to 67.
It's widely expected that more congressional and Senate Democratic candidates will unload on their GOP opponents based on proposals in the Republican Party platform and in a recent House Republican leadership white paper spearheaded by Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to convert Medicare into a defined-contribution program and raise the eligibility age. That's because polls have found that such proposals are highly unpopular among Americans in general and among older voters in particular.
Some observers had predicted the Democratic attacks—which critics have called “Mediscare” in past election campaigns—would be unleashed after Labor Day, when voters are paying more attention. But Ross, who is only a few points behind Burr in most polls in purple North Carolina, didn't wait.
Burr “has written his own plan to privatize Medicare and give it to the insurance companies,” the former state representative told an audience in Fayetteville. She received an endorsement last week from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
In a news release, Ross said she's met people who are delaying their retirement because “they don't know if Social Security will get cut or Medicare will get privatized, and they don't have the money to take that gamble.”
That same day, Democrats organized a rally in Winston-Salem and argued that Burr's proposal would force seniors to pay more out of pocket, offer them less comprehensive coverage, and make them wait longer to qualify for the program. “Medicare needs to stay exactly the way it is,” said Fred Terry, chairman of the Forsyth County Senior Democrats.
Burr's press secretary responded that the Seniors Choice proposal “would have offered seniors better benefits and better choices.” She added that seniors could choose to keep traditional Medicare or pick a private plan. She didn't mention that seniors already have that option under the Medicare Advantage program.
The Seniors Choice Act, jointly proposed by Burr and former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, received mixed reviews from policy experts when it was released in 2012. Under the plan, the federal government would pay private plans and the government-administered traditional Medicare program a fixed amount based on the enrollment-weighted average bid offered by plans. Unlike other premium-support proposals, this one did not include an annual spending growth cap.
The deductible and cost-sharing for Medicare Parts A and B would be combined, total out-of-pocket costs would be capped, and first-dollar Medigap coverage would be prohibited. More affluent seniors would pay significantly higher premiums and cost-sharing. The new program would be overseen by a new Medicare Consumers' Protection Agency that would be independent of HHS.
Proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67 have been criticized for their potential to shift costs onto retirees, employers and other public programs such as Medicaid.
Given the unusual nature of this year's presidential race, it's hard to predict whether the debate over Medicare's future will play its usual prominent role in the campaigning. It's possible that Republican House and Senate candidates such as Burr could be hurt by the fact that GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has repeatedly promised not to touch Medicare or Social Security and has criticized Paul Ryan and other GOP leaders for proposing to restructure and cut those programs.
Many experts think steps are needed to shore up Medicare's long-term financial solvency, given the recent Medicare trustees' report projecting that the Medicare Part A hospital trust fund will be depleted in 2028, two years earlier than projected in last year's report.
But there's tremendous political sensitivity on the issue. According to a mid-2015 Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 70% of people support keeping Medicare as it is today, with only 26% supporting a shift to premium support. Those percentages were similar among Democrats and Republicans. Just 18% of seniors supported turning Medicare into a premium-support program.
“It's incredibly controversial among people who could vote Republican,” said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Expect to see lots of Democrats follow Ross in lobbing the M-bomb at Republicans in the coming weeks.