Reported from The Villages, Florida, with Hans Nichols reporting from New Hampshire, John McCormick from Martha’s Vineyard
Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan defended his plan to overhaul Medicare today in Florida, the state with the highest percentage of senior citizens, saying “you have to reform it for my generation so it doesn’t go bankrupt when we want to retire.”
“We want this debate, we need this debate,” Ryan, 42, a seven-term member of the U.S. House, said in The Villages, a retirement community of more than 44,000 homes about 60 miles northwest of Orlando. “And we are going to win this debate.”
Ryan’s addition to the Republican ticket has thrust Medicare, the national health program for the elderly, to the forefront of the campaign debate. In few states is the issue so important as in Florida, 18 percent of its 19 million residents 65 or older, the most in the nation. Florida, the biggest electoral prize among states both Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama view as competitive, has 3.3 million enrolled in Medicare, more than any state except California.
Among those Floridians covered by Medicare is Ryan’s mother, Betty Ryan Douglas, a 78-year-old Lauderdale-by-the-Sea resident who joined her son on stage. There’s precedent for candidates in Florida showcasing their mothers: Republican Governor Rick Scott aired a TV ad during his 2010 race showing his mother, Esther, telling viewers, “He’s a good boy.”
Ryan said his mother “relies” on the federal health insurance program. Ryan said she “planned her retirement around this promise that the government made her.”
Medicare also covered Ryan’s grandmother, he said. His grandmother lived with his family while he was in high school after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he said.
“Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma, when we needed it then,” Ryan told the crowd. “Medicare is there for mom while she needs it now. And we have to keep that guarantee.”
Medicare has become a flash-point between Obama and Romney, the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, since Ryan joined the race. Ryan is the architect of a fiscal plan that includes spending cuts and the eventual transformation of Medicare into a federal subsidy for private insurance coverage. His plan wouldn’t affect current recipients or those 55 years and older.
Jen Psaki, traveling press secretary for Obama’s re- election campaign, said today that “we know Florida seniors are smart. When they “take a look at the details of the Romney-Ryan plan,” she said, “they’re going to take a close look at that, and we feel good about what the result will be.”
Campaigning in New Hampshire today, Obama said Ryan’s plan would let the wealthiest Americans such as Romney pay less than 1 percent in taxes and would “actually raise taxes on middle class families with children by an average of $2,000.”
“Here’s the kicker: he expects you to pick up the tab,” Obama said. “They have tried to sell us this trickle-down snake oil before. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.”
Obama’s campaign criticizes Ryan’s plan as a “voucher” that would “end Medicare as we know it.” Romney’s team counters that Obama’s health care plan weakens Medicare with cuts that undermine its long-term sustainability.
Today in New Hampshire, Obama said Romney and Ryan “are being dishonest about my plan.”
“You think they’d avoid talking about Medicare, given the fact that both of them have proposed voucherizing Medicare system,” Obama said in Windham, New Hampshire. “I guess they figure that the best defense is to try to go on offence. So New Hampshire, here’s what you need to know — since I have been in office, I have strengthened Medicare.”
Ryan said Obama “raids” Medicare to pay for the Democrat’s health care changes. The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cuts projected Medicare spending by $716 billion over a decade with reduced rates to hospitals, drug companies and insurers. Those reductions don’t affect the benefits elderly people are guaranteed under the program.
Ryan said the changes will force one of every six hospitals and nursing homes to go out of business and end Medicare Advantage — an option that allows the elderly to buy coverage from private insurers — for 4 million seniors. He also criticized the Independent Advisory Payment Board, a panel created by the new law, as “bureaucrats in charge of Medicare who are required to cut Medicare in ways that will lead to denied care for current seniors.”
“Medicare should not be used as a piggy-bank for Obamacare,” said Ryan, standing in front of a banner that read “Protect & Strengthen Medicare.”
Ryan, whose Medicare plan maintained the $716-billion cut, said he would join Romney in restoring that money.
“We will end the raid of Medicare, we will restore the promise of this program and we will make sure this board of bureaucrats will not mess with my mom’s health care or your mom’s health care,” Ryan said.
Outside the morning rally, which included a Bloody Mary bar, a Chick-fil-A tent selling breakfast sandwiches and country music singer Lee Greenwood leading the crowd in patriotic songs, about two dozen seniors protested Ryan’s visit, holding signs including one that read “Keep your Mitts off my Social Security.”
An airplane flew above the rally with a banner reading, “Paul Ryan: Keep your hands off our Medicare.”
“No health insurance company will insure you if you’re a senior and I don’t care how big the voucher is,” said Preston Davis, a 74-year-old Democrat who lives in The Villages and said he returned to work to be able to afford health insurance.
Ryan, meanwhile, received a loud response from a crowd of hundreds of supporters, including Richard Kenney, a 60-year-old retired salesman.
“The vouchers make sense,” said Kenney, wearing a red, white and blue baseball hat embossed with “U.S.A.” in block letters. “It’s better to protect the programs we can than let it all hit a brick wall.”
Romney and Obama have traded the lead in polls of Florida voters this year, and both campaigns say they can win votes by debating changes to Medicare, which is projected to remain solvent until 2024, after which payroll taxes and other assets would still pay 90 percent of estimated expenditures.
In a Public Policy Poll on July 29, Obama had a 1 percentage point lead over Romney, a statistical tie. Romney had the advantage among voters 65 and older in the poll by a margin of 52 percent to 44 percent.
In 2008, seniors accounted for 22 percent of Florida’s electorate and split 45 percent for Obama and 53 percent for Republican John McCain, exit polls show. Voters between the ages of 45-64 made up 37 percent of the electorate and divided 52 percent for Obama to 47 percent for McCain
Obama won Florida by 2.8 percentage points.
Florida is the sixth state Ryan has visited in as many days since Romney selected him as his running mate. Ryan is also scheduled to attend a private fundraiser today at the Club at Treasure Island in the Tampa Bay area. Hosts include William Isaac, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and billionaire H. Gary Morse, developer of The Villages.
Romney was attending his own fundraisers at Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, in a two-day tour of Southampton and the Cape Cod-neighboring islands expected to raise nearly $7 million, according to campaign finance director Spencer Zwick.
“Campaigns now have to spend a disproportionate amount of time fundraising,” Romney said on his plane before departure from Martha’s Vineyard. “You appreciate all the help you get, but you wish you could spent more time on the campaign trail.”