Dems Ramp Up Entitlement Program Rhetoric

Interest group targets state's Medicare reformers
By: Gray Rohrer | Posted: July 13, 2011 3:55 AM

Rep. Williams at Medicare presser

Leon County Commissioner Akin Akinyebe, left, and Rep. Alan Williams on Tuesday / Photo: Gray Rohrer

With debt ceiling negotiations going on in Washington and the political positioning for 2012 already beginning, Florida Democrats and interest groups have a clear message for candidates and incumbents: Don’t touch Medicare.

“Keep your hands off our Medicare,” said Barbara DeVane, state secretary of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy group with 216,000 members.

Flanked by Tallahassee Democrats, DeVane held a press conference Tuesday to announce her group’s intention of visiting the Florida offices of members of Congress who voted in April for a plan to reform the health-care entitlement program for seniors.

All of Florida’s 19 Republicans in Congress voted in favor of the budget plan put forth by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. The Democratically-controlled Senate refused to take it up.

Ryan’s plan included a fundamental transformation of Medicare, keeping benefits intact for those who are 55 years old or older, but transitioning to a voucher program for beneficiaries in 10 years’ time, as opposed to the current fee-for-service health-care delivery method.

Democrats nationwide have scoffed at the plan, and said that it was tantamount to “ending Medicare.” Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, repeated the theme Tuesday, but also hit out at Republicans for efforts to thwart the Affordable Care Act, the federal overhaul of health care that President Barack Obama signed into law last year.

“No matter how many ways (Republicans) try to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which is the law of the land, they are essentially saying the same thing to millions of Floridians -- you are on your own,” Williams said.

Along with other entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicaid, Medicare takes up 43 percent of the federal budget. Conservatives, deficit hawks, and smaller government advocates are keen on cutting the programs, but Democrats and progressives want to prevent any fundamental changes to entitlements, if not expand them.

“And a lot of people like to refer to us as greedy old geezers, but we do care about our families and our children and our grandchildren and other people. In fact, the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans -- we have been fighting for years to extend Medicare to all Americans, from the womb to the tomb. That is our dream, that one day we will have that for all of our members of our family,” DeVane said.

Some Democrats recognize the need for reform, but only want to slightly adjust Medicare. Leon County Commissioner Akin Akinyemi admitted that the federal budget was “out of control” but favored a much more modest proposal of extending the qualifying age for Medicare from 65 to 67.

But the most important Democrat, President Barack Obama, was in favor of a deal to raise the debt limit that included cuts to the cherished entitlement programs. The “grand deal,” which reportedly would have cut $4 trillion over 10 years, blew up over the weekend after House Speaker John Boehner balked over the tax increases it contained.

“What I’ve tried to explain to (Democrats) is, No. 1, if you look at the numbers, Medicare in particular will run out of money, and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up. I mean, it’s not an option for us to just sit by and do nothing,” Obama said during a press conference Monday.

Raising the debt limit is seen as necessary for the U.S. government to meet its obligations, as it is currently on track to exceed the limit by Aug. 2. The current federal debt exceeds $14 trillion.

A candidate’s stance on Medicare is increasingly looking like a litmus test for supporters in 2012. Newt Gingrich’s campaign all but imploded when he publicly criticized the Ryan plan, and Florida state Senate President and U.S. Senate candidate Mike Haridopolos was kicked off a conservative radio show in May for dodging a question on his take on the Ryan plan.

DeVane’s group will pressure Democrats, too. She said a pledge to keep Medicare intact was “absolutely” a litmus test for the support of her organization.

“And we do endorse in campaigns, and we do grass-roots work,” she said.

Reach Gray Rohrer at grohrer@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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