Why GOP sees seniors as crucial to health-reform battle

Seniors vote, and members of Congress know it. The Republican National Committee on Monday released a proposed 'bill of rights' for senior healthcare.

Jim Cole/AP
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, (D) talks with residents at the Elliot Senior Center in Manchester, N.H., Friday.

Why did the GOP on Monday issue a “seniors’ healthcare bill of rights”? Perhaps because in the battle over health reform, the opinion of senior citizens could be a key factor determining victory – or defeat.

Seniors vote, and members of Congress know it. Retirees have time to attend town-hall meetings. The staff of any lawmaker can tell you that seniors pay close attention to the details of their Social Security and Medicare benefits and contact their representatives when they think something’s not right.

Senior citizens may be uniquely unsettled by the current healthcare debate. In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll this month, only 23 percent of respondents over the age of 65 felt they would be better off if health reform passed. Younger respondents were more optimistic.

Senior citizens “are less likely to see themselves helped” by the healthcare reform proposals of the Obama administration and Congress, concludes a Kaiser analysis of its tracking-poll data.

In this context of uncertainty, the GOP appears to see opportunity.

The Republican National Committee on Monday released a proposed “bill of rights” for senior healthcare that outlined six core principles, including protecting Medicare, prohibiting rationing of healthcare based on age, and making sure government doesn’t get between seniors and their doctors.

Under Democratic plans being considered in Congress, “senior citizens will pay a steeper price and will have their treatment options reduced or rationed,” wrote RNC chairman Michael Steele in an op-ed published Monday in The Washington Post.

The White House returned fire quickly, with a statement from Brad Woodhouse, Democratic National Committee spokesman, noting that the GOP opposed the creation of Social Security and Medicare and that Mr. Steele himself, when running for the Senate in 2006, called for Medicare cuts to balance the budget.

“Republicans are fighting against reform for one reason – to ‘break’ President Obama and gain political advantage,” Mr. Woodhouse said.

Still, there is little doubt that seniors are worried about what’s going on.

A Gallup poll released last month, for example, shows that by a 3-to-1 margin, seniors believe that reform will reduce their access to healthcare.

Medicare, the big government health plan for those over 65, would indeed face billions of dollars in cuts under the bills progressing in Congress.

But reform proponents say those cuts are focused on providers, not beneficiaries. Hospital payments would be reduced, for instance, in an attempt to lower expensive readmissions. Federal subsidies for the private Medicare Advantage Plans would be lowered. Medicare Advantage Plans currently cost an average of 14 percent more per person than traditional Medicare.

Wild charges that the bills would include “death panels” with the power to rule on end-of-life care have been widely debunked by such fact-checking organizations as PolitiFact. But many Republicans now insist that the bills might encourage rationing. To back up the assertion, they point to the fact that the reform legislation would set up government panels to study the comparative effectiveness of treatments.

For its part, AARP, the giant Washington lobby for senior citizens, says that the bill would help the over-65 population through such measures as expanding Medicare’s prescription-drug coverage.

“Nothing in the bills that have been proposed would bring about the scenarios the RNC is concerned about,” said John Rother, an executive vice president at AARP, in a statement.

Since July 1, about 60,000 seniors have quit AARP due to its support for healthcare reform. The organization has some 40 million members overall, and since July 1, it has recruited about 400,000 new ones.

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