Mitt Romney’s pick of Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate has injected Medicare into the cauldron of the 2012 presidential campaign....

Mitt Romney’s pick of Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate has injected Medicare into the cauldron of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Medicare is a popular government program, and its nearly 50 million beneficiaries are a very important constituency, if only because of their numbers.

More than 1 million Georgians are on Medicare. In Florida, a key swing state in the presidential election, Medicare beneficiaries make up 18 percent of its population.

And because Ryan has promoted an overhaul of the government insurance program into a ‘‘premium support’’ system, his selection has made Medicare a major political issue.

His proposal would offer beneficiaries a set amount of money they would use toward buying a private plan or traditional Medicare.

The Ryan plan has drawn criticism from Democrats, while Republicans have blasted the 2010 health reform law of President Obama’s as taking more than $700 billion from Medicare.

On Tuesday, Georgia AARP hosted a videoconference at which Medicare experts from both sides of the political spectrum discussed the Ryan premium support plan and other Medicare topics.  AARP in five other states also joined in the teleconference.

This event is a part of an AARP effort, called “You’ve Earned a Say,’’ to engage Americans in a discussion about the future of Social Security and Medicare.

In the videoconference, Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation and Henry Aaron of the Brookings Institution agreed on at least a couple of points: that Medicare beneficiaries should have a cap on their out-of-pocket spending, and that high-income seniors should pay higher premiums than lower-income people.

But the two differed strongly on the issue of a premium support overhaul.

“I’m very much in favor of health reform,’’ Butler said. “I’m not a big fan of Obamacare. I think that’s true of most Americans.’’

The Obama administration, Butler said, is ‘‘ratcheting down payments to doctors and hospitals.’’

A premium support or ‘‘voucher’’ system would give seniors control over Medicare and let them decide which plan to buy, Butler said. “Under premium support, the decision-making would be in the hands of seniors.’’

Aaron countered that the amount of money given to seniors to choose a plan ‘‘would grow more slowly than health care costs,’’ and that the Ryan plan eventually would end up shifting more costs to beneficiaries.

The health reform law removes the doughnut hole in Medicare prescription drug coverage, and repealing it, as Ryan and Romney seek to do, would keep that coverage problem in place, Aaron said.

He quoted the Congressional Budget Office estimate that under the Ryan plan, seniors would face more than $6,000 in added out-of-pocket costs.

Butler called that estimate ‘‘nonsense.’’

Aaron said there’s already consumer choice between regular Medicare and health insurance Advantage plans, which he said have higher costs.

Butler responded that the White House’s payment cuts could lead a significant numbers of doctors to stop treating Medicare patients, and possibly lead hospitals possibly to skimp on care.

They also split on the idea of raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, with Aaron saying it currently could expose people 65 and 66 to being uninsured, and Butler saying that phasing it in would preserve Medicare as a “true retirement program.’’

Here’s the fact-checking PolitiFact’s assessment of the Republican statement that the health care law takes away $716 billion from Medicare.

And Kaiser Health News has a Q and A on the Medicare uproar.


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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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