Quick Hit Matthew Blake Tuesday August 21st, 2012, 5:22pm

Bustos, Schilling Tussle Over Medicare

Presumed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s selection of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) as his running mate has propelled the popular Medicare program into the center of the nationally-watched 17th congressional district race between U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling (R-Colona) and Democratic challenger Cheri Bustos of Moline.

Bustos has latched onto a theme of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign: The Ryan plan will cost Medicare beneficiaries $6,400 a year. Meanwhile, Schilling is proclaiming that the Affordable Care Act (ACA), not Ryan’s plan, will actually cut Medicare spending.

According to Politifact.com, a Web site that fact checks politician’s statements, the Bustos claims are closer to the truth.

Ryan’s budget plan, which passed the Republican-controlled House on a party line vote this April, would change Medicare into a voucher program starting in 2023. The policy would replace Medicare with vouchers that seniors age 67 and over (the Ryan plan raises the eligibility age from 65 to 67) could use towards one of a number of competing private insurance plans on a health exchange. The most recent version of the Ryan plan gives participants an option to use their voucher toward a system like traditional Medicare.

An April 2011 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report found that these voucher subsidies would not keep up with health care costs: Medicare beneficiaries’ annual out-of-pocket costs would increase from $6,150 to $12,500 under the Ryan plan or $6,350 a year.

Democrats have rounded this figure up to $6,400 in their detailing of the issue. The Peoria-Journal Star reports that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is robo-calling 17th District voters, informing them that, “Your Congressman, Bobby Schilling, voted for a budget that would end Medicare and now the budget’s architect, Paul Ryan, is the Republican candidate for Vice President. A nonpartisan analysis showed that Ryan’s budget would raise health care costs for seniors by $6,400.”

Bustos has localized this national Democratic effort with her own “What $6,400 a year means to you” campaign where the candidate asks seniors what would happen if they had to pay $6,400 more annually in health care costs.

"The $6,400 campaign is directly related to the Ryan budget that will cost seniors an estimated $6,400 extra a year," explains Bustos spokeswoman Allison Jaslow. "In this district, that's huge. That's a whole year's rent."

Politifact.com, run by the Tampa Times, sees this as a largely legit attack. The site ranks the $6,400 figure as “mostly true.” The “mostly” refers to the fact that Ryan has since launched a new version of his budget plan and that the $6,400 refers to the Wisconsin lawmaker’s 2011 proposal. But neither Ryan, nor the Romney campaign, has provided CBO with new numbers as to how Medicare subsidies might change in this latest version.

Schilling claims that it is actually ACA that pilfers Medicare money, to the tune of more than $700 billion over the next ten years. But Politifact.com views this claim as “mostly false,” pointing out that the figure is more about how much ACA saves in Medicare costs, not how much is cut toward beneficiaries. Most of these projected savings are realized through less money to hospitals and insurance companies, not patients.

Even if there were merit to Schilling’s argument, it is interesting that the Tea Party Republican does not tout the Ryan budget as tough fiscal medicine that the country needs. Instead, Schilling is conceding the point that Medicare is quite popular. For example, he assured seniors at a forum in Moline last week that only residents under 55 will be affected by a Romney-Ryan Medicare plan.

A poll released today by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling indicates that Ryan’s Medicare plan, especially his voucher component, is unpopular. The direction of the 17th congressional district race seems to reflect this sentiment.

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