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June 14 (Bloomberg) -- Republican Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania backed a U.S. House plan in April to privatize Medicare even though his congressional district would feel the impact more than almost anywhere else in the nation.
While the House plan was later rejected by the Senate, it may be a potent 2012 campaign issue for Democrats.
Nine of the 10 districts throughout the U.S. with the most people age 45-54 are represented by Republicans, including Fitzpatrick, a Bloomberg analysis of census data shows. Those would be among the first Americans to no longer have Medicare as an open-ended entitlement, and instead would be given money to buy private insurance when they’re eligible, under the plan.
Fitzpatrick, like the other Republicans, said he stands by his position.
“All the important votes that I cast as their representative that are directed toward putting the country’s fiscal house back in order will be difficult,” the 47-year-old lawmaker said in an interview. “It requires tough choices.”
Seventeen percent of Fitzpatrick’s eighth congressional district is between 45 and 54, the fifth-highest total in the U.S., census data show.
So far, older Americans aren’t responding favorably to privatizing Medicare, polls show. Fifty-one percent of people age 50 and over oppose the Republican plan, while 29 percent support it, according to a May 25-30 survey by the Washington- based Pew Research Center. Even among Republicans, more people oppose the plan than like it.
The changes are designed to save the program’s finances by trimming government-provided benefits for everyone under age 55. The health-insurance program for the elderly and disabled that covers everyone 65 and older will run out of money to pay full benefits by 2024, according to Medicare.
Michael A. Smith is 54 and said he doesn’t like the idea of scaling it back one bit.
“A community like this, they want jobs and no changes in the funds they’ve paid into all their lives,” Smith, a self- described lifelong Republican who’s unemployed, said in Langhorne, part of the northern Philadelphia suburbs that make up the eighth district.
Fitzpatrick, who won back his congressional seat last year by 7 percentage points after having lost it in 2006, said voters understand the need to curb Medicare spending.
“We’ve got to put the country back on a path to balancing the budget,” he said.
Yet voter dislike of the Republican proposal helped lead Democrat Kathy Hochul to a special-election victory for a congressional seat in New York last month.
On June 1, the National Republican Congressional Committee announced a targeted effort to defend party candidates, including Fitzpatrick, and New Hampshire Republicans Charlie Bass, 59, who was narrowly elected in 2010, and Frank Guinta, 40.
Bass’s and Guinta’s congressional districts are also among those with the highest share of people age 45 to 54, according to the data. Like Fitzpatrick, they’ll have to defend seats in districts that supported Barack Obama in 2008.
Among the other lawmakers whose constituents would be most immediately affected by the Republican plan are New Jersey Republicans Scott Garrett, Leonard Lance, and Rodney Frelinghuysen, New York Republicans Peter King, 67, and Nan Hayworth, and Colorado Republican Mike Coffman.
Representative Joe Courtney, 58, of Connecticut is the sole Democrat in those top 10 districts. He said the Medicare proposal, offered by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, would come back to haunt Republicans.
“That’s awesome,” Courtney said of the census data. “It shows they’re in for a rude awakening.”
The Republican lawmakers said voters will vindicate their decision to back the Ryan plan.
“When I have the opportunity to explain it, it’s been positive,” Coffman, 56, said.
Said Bass, “I’m doing what I think is right for our country.”
Frelinghuysen, 65, said, “My job is to tell it in a straightforward and factual way: The situation is unsustainable, and any Republican or Democrat in Congress who suggests otherwise isn’t telling the truth.”
Other Republican lawmakers said Democrats should offer their own proposal to reform Medicare.
Where Are Alternatives?
“Are there other alternatives out there?” said Garrett, 51. Garrett, who got 65 percent of the vote in 2010, said he doesn’t believe his support for the Ryan plan makes him vulnerable with voters next year.
Lance, 58, said the 55-year-old cutoff point for the privatization plan “is certainly negotiable and perhaps it should be younger.”
Hayworth, 51, a freshman lawmaker who worked for 16 years as an ophthalmologist, said constituents who would be affected by the Republican plan “will have at least 10 years to prepare for that beneficial, consumer-driven change.”
King’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For the entire U.S., 14.6 percent of the population is between 45 and 54 years of age. Those in the top 10 districts most affected had 16.9 percent to 18 percent of their residents in that bracket.
One medical professional in Fitzpatrick’s district said he’s concerned about whether Medicare will even exist by the time he turns 65.
“I’m concerned that a lot of money I’ve paid out over the years is not going to be there in any capacity,” said John Pagan, 47, a doctor who practices in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, part of Fitzpatrick’s district.
--With assistance from Frank Bass in Washington. Editors: Mark McQuillan, Robin Meszoly
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