About 13.7 percent of New Yorkers are age 65 or older, according to census figures. In the sprawling new 19th Congressional District, the percentage is several points higher.
As a result, Medicare has become a key issue in the race between Rep. Chris Gibson of Kinderhook, a first-term Republican elected in the old 20th District, and Democrat Julian Schreibman, a Kingston lawyer.
Few dispute that the pressure of an aging population and fast-rising healthcare costs is creating funding problems for Medicare. It accounted for 15 percent of the U.S. government’s spending in 2010, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. At least one of its trust funds could become insolvent by 2024, by one estimate.
Gibson voted last year to support a 2012 budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican vice presidential candidate, that would change the program extensively.
Under that plan, Medicare recipients born in 1956 and earlier would continue to be eligible for coverage as currently constituted. Younger Americans, however, would be placed into a new program – still called Medicare – under which they would receive vouchers for health care. And starting in 2022, the eligibility age would rise by two months each year until it reached age 67 in 2033.
Many Democrats said the plan would end Medicare as we know it; some simply said it would end Medicare. Gibson picked up on that theme Monday in a phone interview.
“My opponent, unfortunately, is running a very nasty and deceptive campaign,” he said. “He has said that I voted to end Medicare. That was labeled by the nonpartisan fact-checking organization Politifact … the lie of the year.”
Politifact did indeed label the “end Medcare” claim the “Lie of the Year” for 2011. However, it felt obliged in late March to clarify that it was referring very narrowly to “end Medicare,” not “end Medicare as we know it” or any other description containing similar qualifications.
Schreibman, speaking Monday before a group of about 20 seniors at The Plains at Parish Homestead in Oneonta, said, “Democrats said when the Ryan budget came out that it ended the guarantee of Medicare. … The Wall Street Journal happens to agree with that. They said that it essentially ends Medicare. Because the Ryan budget kept the name ‘Medicare,’ Politifact … said that it was a lie to say that it ended Medicare because it was still called Medicare on the back end.
“To me, that’s like if you’re drinking a can of Coke, I take away from you and fill it with dishwater and hand it back to you and tell you it’s still Coke. I don’t think it is, but Politifact would say it is because it still says ‘Coke’ on it.”
The Wall Street Journal wrote April 4, 2011, that “the (Ryan) plan would essentially end Medicare,” but it wrote in August that “the Romney-Ryan plan doesn’t ‘end Medicare as we know it,’ doesn’t include vouchers and doesn’t force seniors to shoulder the $6,400 in higher health costs that (President) Obama mentions at every campaign stop.”
In other words, because of the 1956 threshold, today’s seniors have nothing to worry about, it said. The people affected by the plan weren’t seniors yet. Gibson seized on that idea Monday to criticize Schreibman.
“He’s held these events across the district with seniors, and one of the events he had was in Greene County, and he was railing on these proposals. And a senior citizen raised her hand, and she said, ‘You know, you’ve just spent all this time railing on this proposal, and you never once mentioned that it doesn’t impact us. It doesn’t impact any current seniors.’”
Schreibman fielded a question in that vein from one of the seniors at Monday’s event.
“It’s one of the disputes in terms of my messaging on this,” he said. “The congressman keeps saying, ‘I’m not hurting current seniors.’ To me, that’s not a great answer to say you’re going to wait 10 years before you start hurting people. But the fact is … lots of people are affected by Medicare.”
“A lot of it, frankly, is that the reason why people who want to change it don’t want to change it for current seniors is that current seniors know better than anyone else how well it works,” he added.
Despite the apparent polarization, Gibson said Monday there is still room for discussion.
“I voted for two different proposals to get the conversation started,” he said. “What Democrats and Republicans need to come together to find common ground so that we can save Medicare from bankruptcy.”