WASHINGTON Republicans pushing deep cuts to government spending are seeking to reassure older Americans that their health insurance will remain intact even if Medicare is privatized.
Elderly voters could be pivotal in the 2012 election, where both Democrats and Republicans will be judged for proposed cuts to the federal health insurance program to reduce deficits.
President Barack Obama has proposed trims to the old-age benefits while denouncing as "radical" a Republican plan that would replace Medicare with vouchers giving recipients a fixed amount of money to buy private insurance.
Pushing back, Republican lawmakers have been holding town halls across the country with a clear message: Medicare is unsustainable in its current form and only their plan will guarantee future seniors access to healthcare.
Freshman Republican Steve Stivers said there is a need to reform Medicare to ensure coverage for future retirees.
In an interview, Stivers said he has been busy explaining to people aged 55 and up that they will see no change in their benefits under the Republican plan which would save nearly $6 trillion over the next decade.
"I talk about how for people 54 and under we are preserving the system, we are reforming it to save it because frankly in nine years if we do nothing Medicare goes broke," he said.
That message is crucial if Republicans hope to win support for their plan to privatize the popular government-run program, said John Feehery of Quinn Gillespie Communications and a former Republican congressional staffer.
"In order to be able to sell it, you've got to come up with a communications plan that tells senior citizens that are 55 and over that this is not going to touch you," Feehery said.
The elderly typically vote in large numbers.
They punished Democrats in the congressional elections for voting to cut Medicare spending by $500 billion over 10 years and use the money to help pay for Obama's healthcare overhaul that aims to give coverage to millions of uninsured Americans.
The two parties seem ready to battle over Medicare through next year's election, where Republicans hope to win the White House and take control of the Senate after securing control of the House of Representatives last November.
Republicans are betting that growing alarm over the $1.4 trillion deficit and $14.3 trillion debt will make the public receptive to their proposal, written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
Under Ryan's plan, starting in 2022 retirees would get subsidies to purchase health policies from private insurers. Medicare currently covers people aged 65 and older and the disabled.
Democrats see the proposal as a voter-loser that could seriously hurt the Republicans' chances in 2012. Obama lambasted Ryan's plan during a road trip to California and Nevada this week to promote his own blueprint for reducing the budget deficit.
The campaign-style trip gave Republicans an opening to contrast Obama's plan with their vision for Medicare.
"What little recipe for reform he has offered so far appears to be greater power for a board of bureaucrats in Washington to ration care for seniors," House Republican Policy Committee Chairman Tom Price said in a statement.
"The Medicare status quo is unsustainable. Rationing is unacceptable," said Price adding that the Republican plan would "save and strengthen Medicare by giving future seniors guaranteed access to greater health care choices."
While Republican and Democratic strategists see Medicare as a potent issue for the 2012 election, jittery financial markets could force lawmakers into early compromise.
Standard & Poor's credit rating agency threatened this week to revise the United States' prized triple-A credit rating, expressing concern about that partisan politics will keep lawmakers from reaching agreement on deficits any time soon.
David Kendall, a healthcare analysts at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said the warning and public desire to see lawmakers come to grips with the deficit give both sides an incentive to compromise on Medicare.
"It basically comes down to whether you want to have a deal this year or have an election over it," Kendall said.
(Editing by Laura MacInnis)