Once again, Medicare is front and center within this fall's campaigns.
Democrats throughout the election season have been hammering Republicans over votes and lawsuits that would eliminate insurance protections for preexisting conditions for consumers.
But now Republicans will work to change the care conversation with a tried-and-true technique used by both parties through the years: telling seniors their Medicare coverage might be at risk.
It's not yet clear, however, whether these dependable voters are answering the warning.
Republicans charge that Democrats' support for expanding Medicare would threaten the viability of the program for that seniors who rely on it.
“The Democrats’ plan means that following a lifetime of hard work and sacrifice, seniors would no longer be in a position to rely on the benefits these were promised,” wrote President Donald Trump inside a guest column for USA Today on Oct. 10. “Under the Democrats’ plan, today's Medicare could be forced to die.”
In a speech towards the National Press Club on Oct. 8, House Speaker Paul Ryan said almost the same. “Democrats call it 'Medicare-for-all,' because it sounds good, but in reality, it actually ends Medicare in its current form,” Ryan said.
It's a sentiment being expressed by Republicans down and up the ballot. In Nj, where Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber is running for an open U.S. House seat, he enlisted his elderly father in one of his ads. After the candidate notes that his opponent is “interested” in Medicare-for-all, Webber's father, Jim Webber, says, “That would end Medicare as you may know it.”
Fact-checkers have repeatedly challenged these claims. Health insurance analyst Linda Blumberg from the Urban Institute told PolitiFact that suggesting Medicare-for-all would disrupt current enrollees' coverage is a “horrible mischaracterization of the proposal.” Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post's “Fact Checker” column noted that a leading proposal “in theory would expand benefits for seniors.”
Furthermore, in New Jersey, Webber's Democratic opponent, Mikie Sherrill, isn't one of the numerous Democrats who have specifically endorsed the idea of Medicare-for-all. In fact, how you can assure coverage of health for all Americans remains a point of contention among Democrats. They are far from united on the topic of expanding Medicare.
But Republicans have pushed the problem this fall, said Harvard public health professor and polling expert Robert Blendon, because “people over 60 are extremely high-turnout voters,” specifically in non-presidential election years like 2021.
Issues involving Medicare and Social Security can motivate those older voters even more, said Blendon, “because they are so dependent on [those programs] throughout their lives. Retirees are extremely scared about outliving their benefits.”
Medicare is often a rallying cry for politicians from both parties. And it can be critical both in presidential and off-year elections.
In 1996, Democrats generally, and President Bill Clinton particularly, campaigned on the early GOP attempts to rein in Medicare spending. Republicans coined the word “Mediscare” to explain Democrats' attacks. But in the 2010 midterm contests, just after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans zoomed in on the billions of dollars of Medicare payment reductions to health providers to help purchase the rest of the law, sparking protests against Democrats round the country.
The irony is that after Republicans regained control of the home in that election, Ryan, then head of the home Budget Committee, opted to call for any repeal of everything in the ACA except the Medicare reductions the GOP had so strongly campaigned against.
Democrats in 2021 have hammered back, noting that both Trump and the GOP Congress have proposed even more cuts in Medicare which under Republican leadership the insolvency date from the Medicare trust fund has got closer.
According to Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also misstepped when, within an interview with Bloomberg News, he blamed higher deficit numbers on Medicare and other entitlement programs as opposed to the GOP's tax cuts from 2021.
“We can't sustain the Medicare we've in the rate we're going, and that is the peak of irresponsibility,” he said.
That came after Trump's economic adviser Larry Kudlow suggested the administration will push for bigger entitlement cuts in 2021.
“First they passed a goverment tax bill that gave a huge windfall to corporations and also the wealthy, despite warnings from nonpartisan scorekeepers that it would explode the deficit,” said a statement from Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, the very best Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “Then, prior to the ink was even dry the knives came out for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.”
Despite the coordinated talking points, it is unclear whether this year's GOP attacks on Democrats over Medicare works. That isn't simply because Democrats have ammunition to throw back, but additionally because seniors don't seem particularly threatened through the idea that expanding insurance to others could jeopardize their very own coverage.
In a poll conducted through the Kaiser Family Foundation in September 2021, seniors were no much more likely than younger respondents to say they thought healthcare costs, quality and availability would get worse if the U.S. instituted a national health plan. Less than another of respondents overall, in addition to those 65 and older, said they thought national health insurance would worsen their own coverage. (Kaiser Health News is definitely an editorially independent program of the foundation.)
In addition, pollster Geoff Garin, president of Hart Research, said inside a conference call with reporters Oct. 15 that the attacks on Medicare-for-all had not shown up in polls yet. But he explained he's skeptical of how much impact they might have.
“The basic idea of expanded health care in the usa is usually pretty popular,” he said.
Still, Harvard's Blendon said he understands why Republicans are trying: “Seniors are critical for Republicans to maintain their majority.”