Health On The Hill Transcript: GOP Medicare Plan Spurs Anger, Splits Public During Recess

KHN’s Mary Agnes Carey talks with Jackie Judd about varied reaction by Americans and lawmakers to the GOP plan to reduce the deficit by making changes to Medicare as well as new efforts to get the deficit under control. A new Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows most seniors oppose some GOP-proposed changes at a greater rate than the general public, which views it more favorably.

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JACKIE JUDD:  Good day, I’m Jackie Judd, and this is Health On The Hill.  Ad wars, a Gang of Six and a new deficit panel.  They are all back in the news, and we will discuss them all.  But first, we start with the ad wars. 

Democrats are targeting a couple of dozen House Republicans who voted for a budget that would transform the future of Medicare.  The commercials, produced by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, accuse the lawmakers of flip-flopping. 

ADVERTISEMENT  1:   House Republicans promised they would protect Medicare.  They lied.  Dan Benishek voted to end Medicare:  “Social Security and Medicare are a promise we have made to our seniors, and I will keep that promise.”  Scott Tipton voted to end Medicare:  “I’ll never put our seniors’ future at risk.  No cuts, no privatization, and no scaring our seniors.”

JACKIE JUDD:  An organization called the 60 Plus Association says, to the contrary, House Republicans should be congratulated.

ADVERTISEMENT 2:   Something unusual happened last week, in Washington, D.C., of all places.   Elected officials actually did what they said they would.  The House passed a budget that protects and preserves Medicare for years to come.  And our congressman, Allen West, voted to protect Medicare and keep it secure for future retirees.

JACKIE JUDD:  The congressman mentioned in that commercial, Florida’s Allen West, faced a raucous crowd at a town hall meeting this week, according to an account in the New York Times.  Our reporter, Mary Agnes Carey, senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News is here. 

Describe what’s been going on during this congressional recess. 

MARY AGNES CAREY:  It’s a very coordinated campaign by Democrats in town hall meetings throughout the country, in television advertisements, and in calls to voters in swing districts to call attention to elements of the Republican House-passed budget resolution, in particular its elements on Medicare and Medicaid.  They want to highlight these for voters with the hope of increasing voter opposition to them.

JACKIE JUDD:  Politico interviewed a Democratic strategist close to the Obama White House who said the Ryan plan, the budget plan that was passed in the House, “finally gives us an argument to make with seniors.  It’s a godsend.”  Which raises the question, how much of what we’ve seen in the town hall meetings over the past ten days or so have risen up kind of organically vs. how much has been orchestrated by the Democratic party?

MARY AGNES CAREY:  Well there’s no doubt that, for an issue as volatile as changing Medicare, that you would have organized opposition, and Democrats have tried to increase attendance at these meetings.  And you certainly have your average voter also coming out to these meetings. 

But let’s go back a little bit to August 2009, when Democrats were trying to restructure the health care system.  They were in the middle of their debate over the health care law.  A lot of Republican opposition also organized in these town hall meetings to get out and to make the point that they disliked what the Democrats were trying to do to the health care system.  So the same thing is going on here, I think.

JACKIE JUDD:  There have been several polls over the past couple of weeks, since the House budget plan was approved, trying to gauge what real voter sentiment is about, in particular, the Medicare question.  Another one is out, just this afternoon, from the Kaiser Family Foundation.  What are the findings in the most recent poll?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Very interesting.  Seniors, who Paul Ryan says won’t be impacted at all by his Medicare proposal –

JACKIE JUDD: It would be 55 and under.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Exactly – they oppose it at a rate of 62 to 30 percent.  When you look at the general public, it’s far more split. Looking again at the general public: 50 percent say they want to keep Medicare as it is today, but 46 prefer this premium support model by Paul Ryan.  So, the results are very, very different depending on the age group.

JACKIE JUDD:  And the results have been different from one survey to another, in terms of the publics view towards this idea. How does Kaiser try to analyze that and then explain it? 

MARY AGNES CAREY: The results you get to any question also depend often on how it’s asked and when it’s asked and if people are familiar with the terms you’re using – is this the first time they’ve heard of them?  It’s really clear it’s all about the message.  This is what Kaiser tried to get at in its latest poll.  For example, when Paul Ryan’s plan, as he talks about it, is described as something that will reduce the deficit and save Medicare, support increases for it.  But when you explain it as something that will eliminate traditional Medicare and put insurers in charge, opposition increases.  So, looking ahead, as both Democrats and Republicans make their case to the public this spring and this fall, support for and against this plan, I think, will have to be viewed in very much how people make their message and how it’s received.

JACKIE JUDD: I want to move on and do a short preview of next week when Congress will be back in Washington.  There is a new Gang of Six – we had a gang of six or seven back during the health care reform debate – but there is a new Gang of Six, and there are also new efforts to get the deficit under control through this panel that President Obama outlined a couple weeks ago in his speech.  What should we look for next week?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Vice President Joe Biden is going to convene a meeting next week of this panel that you mentioned. President Obama wanted a bi-partisan, bi-cameral panel to come together and see if they can find a way to reduce the deficit.

JACKIE JUDD: And of course, health care costs would be front and center in that conversation.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Right.  So far, Republicans have nominated two members; Democrats have nominated four.  The President had asked for a sixteen-member panel.  I’m not sure if others will join, but Vice President Biden is quoted backing that.  Those meetings start next week.  The hope is that they would get a deficit reduction agreement by June.  Separately, as you mentioned, in the Senate we have a Gang of Six – three Republicans, three Democrats.  They’ve been meeting for the last few months.  They say they’re fairly close to trying to get an agreement on deficit reduction, but those panels say they’re not working in – they don’t – the Vice President’s efforts won’t hurt the Gang of Six, for example.  They say that all efforts are welcome and everyone’s coming to the table to try to come up with a bi-partisan solution to reduce the deficit.  Now whether either panel is successful, we’ll have to wait and see. 

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, and we’ll talk about it again next week.


JACKIE JUDD: Thank you so much.  Mary Agnes Carey, Kaiser Health News. 

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