By Alexander Bolton - 09/24/09 04:15 PM EDT
The Senate's leading Republican made clear Thursday that his party is positioning itself as a staunch defender of Medicare in an effort to sink Democratic healthcare plans.
By doing so, Republicans are ripping a page from the Democrats' political playbook. In past years it has been Democrats who have exalted themselves as champions of Medicare and vigorously fought GOP efforts to curb Medicare benefits.
“The proposal now being considered in the Finance Committee is a trillion-dollar experiment that cuts Medicare, raises taxes and threatens the healthcare options that millions of Americans enjoy, and this is absolutely unacceptable,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) told reporters on Thursday.
The Senate and House healthcare reform bills would cut between $400 billion and $500 billion over 10 years to help cover millions of Americans without insurance.
Democrats argue that Medicare beneficiaries would not see their individual benefits cuts. But Republicans counter that a subset of Medicare beneficiaries, about 10 million seniors enrolled in special privatized Medicare programs, would indeed face reduced benefits.
“The administration has been telling Americans for months and months, they can keep it,” McConnell said. “Whoever believes this apparently isn’t familiar with the bill that the Democrats want the president to sign.”
McConnell acknowledged the role reversal with Democrats.
“Any time the Republican majority or Republican president tried to stem the rate of growth of Medicare, we were accused of doing awful things to Medicare. There were no Democratic votes available for any of that.”
McConnell said the reductions that Republicans proposed in past years were “quite modest” compared to what Democrats have proposed this year.
Democrats called the GOP strategy highly ironic given past efforts to curb Medicare spending.
“It’s interesting to see Senate Republicans’ intense focus on seniors, despite their philosophy of opposing any efforts to strengthen Medicare,” said Rodell Mollineau, staff director at the Senior Democratic Communications Center. “Republicans have opposed Medicare from the beginning, and now they seem to be in the midst of an epiphany. We don’t buy it, and neither will America’s seniors. Someone should ask Senate Republicans why they have spent so much of the last four decades refusing to join Democrats in protecting Medicare.”
The coordinated GOP attack stems from a partisan fight within the Senate Finance Committee over whether to cut Medicare Advantage, a network of private insurance plans that provides benefits to nearly 10 million Medicare enrollees.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has proposed cutting $123 billion from Medicare Advantage plans.
Republicans have pounced on the proposed cut, arguing that millions of elderly Americans in Medicare Advantage will see their benefits reduced.
“The people who are signed up for Medicare Advantage overwhelmingly like it,” said McConnell. “It is a fact that you cannot cut Medicare Advantage without reducing the number of seniors benefiting from more than basic Medicare offers.”
“It is inaccurate to suggest it’s not a reduction in services; it is,” he said.
Republicans originally championed Medicare Advantage plans as a way to save money. The theory was that private insurance plans would be able to administer Medicare benefits more efficiently. But as it turned out, they couldn’t.
As a result, the federal government has had to step in to subsidize these plans at a greater cost than fee-for-service Medicare. Enrollees in Medicare Advantage usually receive better coverage, but they do so at a substantial cost to the government.
Democrats on the Finance Committee see the healthcare reform debate as a golden opportunity to cut this privatized arm of Medicare, which they view as a drain on Medicare’s solvency.
“There may very well be savings that could be in Medicare Advantage,” said Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).
“Our principal objection is taking savings from Medicare and spending it on a new program.
“Our belief [is] that any savings from Medicare ought to be spent shoring up Medicare; otherwise we jeopardize the medical care of seniors all across our country,” he added.