Senior citizens are putting the Democratic Party's 2010 election prospects and their health care reform proposals on a collision course.
Outraged over Democratic plans to cut between $400 billion and $500 billion from Medicare in the next decade, voters over the age of 65 are poised to make the party suffer even steeper losses at the polls than have already been predicted for the midterm election.
"Seniors bear the brunt of these bills as they are currently funded," said Betsey McCaughey, a former Republican lieutenant governor of New York and conservative health care policy expert. "It's a medical assault on seniors."
Democrats argue that Medicare is going bankrupt and must be reined in, and the cuts on the table will for the most part address wasteful spending and not take away benefits. But many seniors, who tend to make up a larger proportion of the electorate in off-year elections, are not convinced. They turned out in huge numbers at town hall meetings this summer, and poll numbers support what appears to be wide opposition among them.
A new survey from Rasmussen Reports found only 33 percent of voters over the age of 65 are in favor of the Democratic health care plan outlined by President Obama -- eight points lower than the electorate as a whole. Of those seniors against the Obama plan, 46 percent said they "strongly oppose" it.
At the center of the debate is a plan to slash spending on a program called Medicare Advantage, which is administered by private insurers and offers benefits beyond regular, government-administered Medicare plans, such as dental and vision coverage in exchange for larger premiums. It is used by about 10 million seniors, roughly 20 percent of all Medicare recipients.
The world according to AARP
The AARP, the nation's largest lobbying group serving older Americans, is facing a backlash from members who are opposed to President Obama's plans to reform health care by cutting Medicare.
The group has not officially endorsed a health care plan, but is working closely with the administration and Congress to develop one, and that has stirred anger among some of its 40 million members who view the alliance as somewhat of a betrayal.
Tens of thousands have left the AARP and gravitated to the American Seniors Association, which describes itself as a center-right group that is opposed to Obama's plan.
"The AARP has really just moved to the left in recent years and wherever there is a vacuum, something will fill it and in this case it is the American Seniors Association," said Phil Kent, spokesman for the new group.
Kent suggested that the AARP, which helps sell insurance policies, may be trying to gain a favorable deal from working with the administration.
"What they may be doing is trying to cut a deal with Obama and congressional Democrats so that they will be one of the preferred sellers," Kent suggested.
But David Sloane, senior vice president of government relations for AARP, denied engaging in such a scheme and said the association is simply working to represent all of its constituents, including those who do not receive Medicare.
"We have to balance the issues of two significant cohorts," Sloane said. "Those who are not yet eligible for Medicare and those who are eligible for Medicare. We believe we are taking the kinds of steps that are necessary to protect the program."
In the Senate, lawmakers are drafting a bill that would cut about $123 billion from Medicare Advantage over the next decade, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would slash extra benefits seniors receive under the Medicare Advantage plans by half and that enrollment would drop by 2.7 million.
Democrats argue that Medicare Advantage costs too much and is driving Medicare toward insolvency, but Republicans are now seeking to protect it, which will undoubtedly help secure votes from this group in 2010.
Overall cuts to Medicare outlined in the Senate bill now being drafted include a $211 billion reduction in payments to hospitals, nursing homes, home help and hospice care, in addition to the cuts in Medicare Advantage.
The Medicare reductions are making Democrats nervous, which some health care experts believe will result in a bill with far fewer cuts to the program.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., has introduced an amendment that would spare those currently enrolled in Medicare Advantage from any new cuts.
"I can tell you this senator does not want to be in a position that I am taking away benefits from existing senior citizens," Nelson told the committee.