* Democrats see Ryan plan as ammunition for 2012
* Republicans banking on voters' fears over deficit
* Say Obama's deficit plan rations care for elderly
By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON, April 21 Republicans pushing deep
cuts to U.S. 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. [ID:nN04213172]
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
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
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)