Medicare Cuts Drive Wedge Between GOP And Seniors

THREE times a week Harry Myers drives to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach for medical treatment. Mr. Myers depends on Medicare and Medicaid to pay thousands of dollars in hospital bills.

But plans by the Republican-led Congress to slow down the rate of growth of these programs could be a blow to his finances. ''I live on a fixed income,'' says Mr. Myers, ''and just don't know where I would come up with more money to pay for increases in the deductible and premiums.''

Rose Ross of Hallandale, Fla., calls the budget proposals a ''slap in the face.''

Such sentiments are being expressed by many senior citizens in Florida, who are anxiously watching the legislative action in Washington. The political fallout here -- and in retirement-heavy states across the Sun Belt -- could be significant. Eighteen percent of Florida's 13 million residents are over 65. The state ranks second only to California in total Medicare payments.

With its 25 electoral votes, Florida is a coveted prize in presidential politics. Prior to the budget battle, it was seen by analysts as clearly in the 1996 Republican column, something even Clinton aides privately conceded. But the recently passed GOP House and Senate budget resolutions alter the political landscape.

''If there's a scenario in which President Clinton can win Florida, the Medicare debate is it,'' says Cory Tilley, spokesman for the Florida Republican Party. ''Seniors are bloc voters, and that bloc killed Jeb Bush in his run for governor last year.''

''Democrats will almost certainly make Medicare the defining issue of their Florida campaign,'' says Mr. Tilley.

Appearing to take that cue, Democrats in the state have already jumped on the issue.

''These Republican proposals are going to decrease the access to health care and are going to decrease the affordability,'' says Doug Cook, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles's top adviser on health-care issues.

AARP opposition

The principal lobbying group for seniors on Capitol Hill, the powerful American Association for Retired Persons (AARP), is also warning of the political consequences of slowing Medicare spending.

''If these proposals come into being, our 2.5 million state members will probably react negatively to the sponsors of the legislation,'' says Abraham Asofsky, a spokesman for the AARP's Florida office. ''The entire debate over those Medicare cuts will be one of perception, and we view this budget as hurting our members.''

Republicans, however, argue that their budget doesn't really cut Medicare and Medicaid spending. It would continue to grow by at least 5 percent each year. Now, spending rises by more than 10 percent each year to cover higher costs, more patients, and additional services. But in many areas, reducing the rate at which spending grows would have the effect of cutting back government services, especially in health care.

By reining in both programs, Republicans could save a combined $430 billion over the next seven years.

Rep. Clay Shaw (R) of Florida sits at the epicenter of the Medicare debate. His congressional district stretches from Miami Beach to Juno Beach in Palm Beach County. It has the highest proportion of residents over 65 of any congressional district. Although many of his constituents don't like it, Mr. Shaw says Congress must slow the growth of Medicare or the program will go broke.

''Everybody wants to be sure the status quo stays in place, but if Congress ignores the situation, it will be dead,'' Shaw says. ''There will be no Medicare.''

Shaw doesn't dwell on the political consequences of the spending reductions. But a political strategist close to a Republican presidential candidate says it could spell trouble in Florida for the eventual GOP nominee.

Chance for Democrats

''Governor Chiles did very well with seniors in his race last year,'' says the strategist. ''Certainly, the president's campaign will exploit the Medicare debate.... They would be foolish not to.''

Democrats may find plenty of anger to tap among seniors, like Mrs. Ross.

She only uses Medicare to pay for treatment of a minor ailment, but says, ''My friends and I feel we would be denied what we're entitled to after paying into the system. It's a trust that is being broken.''

Despite such sentiments, Tilley says Republicans are far from writing off Florida.

''We may take a short-term hit in public-opinion polls,'' Tilley says. ''But 18 months from now, seniors will give the GOP credit for reducing the deficit and making some mighty tough decisions.''

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