At AARP, Obama says Romney would put seniors 'at the mercy' of insurers

President Obama defended his signature healthcare law Friday and told seniors that Mitt Romney and Paul RyanPaul RyanThis week: Congress awaits Comey testimony Trump administration faces decision on ObamaCare payments Outside money pours into marquee House race MORE would leave them "at the mercy of insurance companies."

Obama, appearing via satellite to an AARP conference, made an aggressive political and policy argument against the GOP ticket's Medicare proposals.

Romney and Ryan's plan would partially privatize Medicare, giving seniors the option of the existing program or a subsidy to help pay for private insurance. It's a change from an earlier proposal from Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, that would have ended traditional Medicare outright, but Obama said the program's days would still be numbered.

"The problem is that insurance companies, once they're getting vouchers, they're really good at recruiting the younger, healthier Medicare recipients," leaving only older and sicker patients in the government program, he said. 

Once that happens, Obama said, "the entire infrastructure of traditional Medicare ends up collapsing, which means all seniors end up, at some point, being at the mercy of insurance companies."

While pledging to work with Republicans in Congress, Obama told the AARP audience that he'll "say no" to the GOP's Medicare plan.

AARP is the nation's largest and most powerful seniors' lobby. And seniors will help decide the presidential race in key swing states, including Florida, where Medicare has become an especially pressing issue after Romney selected Ryan as his running mate.

In an effort to insulate themselves from attacks on their Medicare plans, Romney and Ryan launched a forceful attack on the Medicare cuts in Obama's healthcare law. They argue that he "robbed" Medicare to pay for a new entitlement.

The Romney campaign maintained its criticism Friday, saying Obama has broken his promise to AARP to strengthen Medicare.

"Our nation’s seniors deserve better than the higher costs and fewer benefits that President Obama’s policies will deliver," campaign spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said in a statement. "Mitt Romney will restore President Obama’s Medicare cuts, while strengthening the program for future generations.”

Obama pushed back against those claims, noting that Medicare's independent trustees have said the health law's savings extended the lifespan of Medicare, rather than shortening it.

"ObamaCare actually strengthened Medicare," the president said.

AARP supported the Affordable Care Act, much to the chagrin of congressional Republicans, who were attacking the organization Friday even as Ryan was also slated to address the same conference.

The health law cut $716 billion from payments to doctors, hospitals and private insurance companies. It also created popular new benefits for Medicare and began closing the so-called "doughnut hole," which lowers seniors' out-of-pocket spending on prescription drugs.

"Those savings are part of what allows us to close the doughnut hole, provide the preventive care, and is actually going to extend the life of Medicare over the long term," Obama told the AARP crowd.

Asked how he plans to curb entitlement spending without cutting Medicare benefits, Obama mentioned his proposal to extend Medicaid's prescription-drug rebates into Medicare.

— This post was updated at 1:55 p.m.