By Mike Lillis
A controversial GOP plan to tackle deficit spending by privatizing the nation's entitlements could help Democrats in senior-heavy Florida, a top Democrat argued Wednesday.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said the "dramatic contrast" between Democrats and Republicans on Medicare and Social Security "is absolutely going to be critical" at the polls next month.
"We have elderly voters here who are extremely concerned about the Republican plan to privatize Social Security [and] turn Medicare into a voucher program," she told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell.
"Floridians in particular are very concerned about the safety net that they have in their later years in life being ripped out from under them by Republicans, and that's why I think they're going to go to the polls and choose Democrats across the ballot."
The concern isn't evidenced in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, which has Democrat Kendrick Meek trailing Republican Marco Rubio 22 to 44 percent, while Independent candidate Charlie Crist splits the others with 30 percent.
At issue is a proposal, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), that aims to balance the budget largely by cutting spending on the nation's healthcare entitlements. Under Ryan's plan, dubbed the Roadmap for America's Future, those entering Medicare after 2020 (meaning those younger than 55 today) would receive vouchers to purchase private insurance coverage, effectively replacing the government-backed single-payer system that now defines Medicare.
Vouchers would be adjusted based on the wealth of the beneficiary, with low-income seniors paying less than wealthier folks. Ryan's blueprint would also slowly raise Medicare's eligibility age, from 65 now to 69-and-six-months over the next 80 years.
On Tuesday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a co-sponsor of Ryan's bill, explained the reasoning behind it.
"We reform the entire health care system," Nunes told the Fox Business Network's "Willis Report."
"We say the federal government is so completely inefficient and wasting so many tax dollars that we believe if we move those entitlements from bureaucrats in Washington and basically put them into the individual — where the individual takes care of their individual programs — they can take care of it and manage it, under the watch [of] the government but not under government control."
Nunes blasted the Democratic critics of the plan, accusing them of resorting to scare-tactics about how the changes would "take granny's Social Security away [and] keep her out of the hospital."
"This is what we have to put up with when guys like us actually just put legitimate plans out there on the table," he said. "We don't say we have all the answers, but at least we have a plan. The rest of these people have no plan."
Most Republicans, though, aren't eager to jump on board either. Indeed, Ryan's plan has generated plenty of headlines in recent months, largely because GOP leaders have declined to endorse it. (It has 13 co-sponsors).
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters in July that parts of the proposal "are well done," but he has "some doubts about … how good the policy is."
Politically, that reluctance makes good sense. In its analysis of Ryan's proposal, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said the value of the Medicare vouchers would be less, when the program launched in 2021, than the projected spending on each enrollee under traditional Medicare.
"Beneficiaries would therefore face higher premiums in the private market for a package of benefits similar to that currently provided by Medicare," CBO said.
Also, because the value of the vouchers are expected to grow more slowly than that of medical inflation, seniors, under Ryan's plan, would be forced to pay more costs out-of-pocket as the voucher program ages, CBO said.
"Beneficiaries would therefore be likely to purchase less comprehensive health plans or plans more heavily managed than traditional Medicare, resulting in some combination of less use of healthcare services and less use of technologically advanced treatments than under current law."
It's not a message most Republicans want to endorse in an election season when party leaders are blasting Democrats for slashing Medicare benefits under the new health reform law. Instead, most Republicans on the campaign trail are vowing to balance budgets without mentioning the entitlements, which are the single largest driver of deficit spending.
Indeed, when Boehner was asked last month how GOP leaders plan to tackle the entitlements if they win the House, he said there is no such plan.
"I don't have all the solutions," he told reporters. "It's about having that adult conversation in an honest, open way that'll get us the answers to lay out the plan that will solve this problem once and for all."
For the supporters of Ryan's proposal, though, time is of the essence.
"If we refuse to act," Nunes warned, "this could actually stop Social Security, Medicare [and] a lot of government programs in their tracks within the next 10 years."