June 14 (Bloomberg) -- If some U.S. House Republicans are having qualms about the political fallout over their plan to privatize Medicare, Allen West isn’t one of them.
Less than two weeks after voter opposition to the Medicare proposal helped elect a Democrat to an open House seat in New York, West offered constituents in his south Florida district an unambiguous defense of the plan that Republicans say is needed to save the federal insurance program for the elderly.
“We have got to do something about this program or else,” he told voters of the 22nd Congressional District at a June 6 town-hall meeting at Old Davie School Historical Museum, a 1918 national landmark that sits amid Florida’s commercial and residential sprawl.
“The clock is ticking -- 2024 and it goes away,” he said, referring to the first year when Medicare will be unable to pay full benefits, according to its trustees. “It won’t even be here for some of the seniors who are about to enter this program.”
West, 50, is among 10 House Republicans identified by the National Republican Congressional Committee as likely to be targeted by Democrats next year because President Barack Obama carried their districts in 2008. For many, the future of Medicare looms as one of the largest issues.
Already, two Democrats have said they are running against West, one of the Tea Party-backed candidates whose victories in November’s midterm elections enabled Republicans to control the House of Representatives this session. Lois Frankel, a former mayor of West Palm Beach, and businessman Patrick Murphy have declared their candidacies, setting up a Democratic primary next year. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates West’s re-election chances as a tossup.
Mitch Ceasar, the Democratic Party chairman in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, calls the 22nd the “definition of a swing district.”
It stretches from Fort Lauderdale north along Florida’s southeast coast to Jupiter, with several inland enclaves in Palm Beach County. Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, home to billionaire investor H. Wayne Huizenga, make the area the richest of Florida’s 25 congressional districts, with a median household income of $62,111, 2009 census data show.
According to the 2010 census, 20.4 percent of the district’s 694,259 residents are 65 or older, meaning they are among the nation’s 48 million Medicare recipients.
A Republican plan passed by the U.S. House in April would offer vouchers for the purchase of private health insurance when people become eligible for Medicare.
The plan has met with public resistance so far: A Washington Post-ABC News nationwide poll of 1,002 adults conducted June 2-5 found that 49 percent of voters oppose the idea and 32 percent support it.
Ammunition for Democrats
While the plan stands little chance of becoming law, Democrats are already using it as a campaign issue against Republicans.
Democrat Kathy Hochul won the May 24 special election in a reliably Republican House district in western New York after criticizing her opponent for endorsing the Medicare plan contained in the House-passed 2012 budget resolution.
Democrats contend that Ryan’s plan would shortchange future beneficiaries because the premium subsidy wouldn’t keep pace with rising insurance costs.
They cite an April 5 letter to Ryan from the Congressional Budget Office in which the CBO determined that by 2030 a typical 65-year-old under the Republican plan would pay 68 percent of his or her health-care costs, compared with 25 percent to 30 percent under traditional Medicare.
At stake, Republicans say, is the future of the program, which is among the main drivers of the budget deficit -- and the party’s plan is intended to curb costs.
Constituents Get It
Another freshman Republican, Lou Barletta, represents the 11th Congressional District in northeastern Pennsylvania, where census data show that 16.4 percent of the 687,860 residents are over 65. He said his constituents see the need for the plan.
“I’ve been encouraged by the conversations we’ve had with seniors back home,” Barletta, whose re-election is also rated a tossup by the Cook Political Report, said in an interview.
These voters “understand that nothing will happen to their benefits, but they are concerned about their children and grandchildren and whether Medicare will be there for them.”
Not all Republicans offer unwavering defenses of the language drafted by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Last month, Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over Medicare, said he has no plans to draft legislation revamping the program.
Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette said he tells voters that the House budget resolution is just “a set of numbers.” Only after two other committees draft legislation will they “be able to sit down and talk about it,” he said.
“I’m not having any trouble,” LaTourette said in an interview.
West, a blunt-spoken retired Army lieutenant colonel who is one of only two black Republican House members, doesn’t shrink from the issue of overhauling Medicare -- or from criticizing members of his own party.
In April, he voted against the deal negotiated by House Speaker John Boehner to reduce $38.5 billion in government spending, saying it would result in only $352 million in actual cuts this year.
“I like people to be upfront with me,” he told reporters at the time. “Surprises are for birthdays.”
Last month, West took issue with a bipartisan group of lawmakers calling for faster troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, telling reporters: “Just because you killed Osama bin Laden does not mean the Taliban stop fighting.”
West, who retired from the military after being reprimanded for firing a gun close to the head of a detainee while in Iraq, added, “I would take these gentlemen over and let them be shot at a few times. Maybe they’d have a different opinion.”
He is trying to focus the 2012 election campaign on Obama’s leadership, telling his constituents that the president and his fellow Democrats aren’t offering the right solutions for the nation’s economic and fiscal ills.
“We can agree” that the 2008 financial crisis “was a bad situation,” West said at the Davie town-hall meeting. “But the thing is, leaders don’t take bad situations and make them worse. Leaders take bad situations and come up with viable solutions.”
Then he was asked about Medicare.
“What ideas do you have to reduce the cost of delivery of Medicare for seniors versus just shifting the cost for Medicare to the patient?” said a written question from “Elizabeth from Fort Lauderdale.”
West said Congress must “introduce a defined-contribution premium-support plan” because fee-for-service payments to doctors and hospitals are “destroying Medicare.”
Another written query warned West: “Don’t cut Medicare.” He took that as an opportunity to attack the health-care overhaul the Democrats passed last year when they controlled Congress.
“There is a group of individuals that voted last year to cut Medicare,” he said. “They voted $500 billion out of Medicare” to help finance the legislation.
The Republicans “are not leaving any American in the lurch” because “if you are of a lower-income rate as a senior, you will be taken care of,” West said. He told the audience of more than 200 that only people younger than 55 would be affected by the proposed changes because the new system would begin in 2022.
Democrats say that impact would be significant. If Ryan’s plan is enacted, 124,000 current residents of West’s district who are between the ages of 44 and 54 would have to save from $182,000 to $287,000 to pay for future health-care costs, according to a report by the Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Financial planner Joni Simon, 65, of Weston, said she was reassured by West’s words that Republicans “would not just give us a voucher and throw us to the wolves.”
Ed Brown, 65, a retired Social Security Administration official, said he wasn’t convinced that the comprehensive change Republicans are proposing is necessary.
He said Congress should first see “if you can save Medicare by cutting some of the money that will be spent frivolously” on other programs.
“I like Medicare the way it was,” Brown, a Republican, said.
--With assistance from Frank Bass in Washington. Editors: Mark McQuillan, Leslie Hoffecker
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