In Health Debate, Both Sides Vie For Seniors' Support

Nearly all seniors already have health insurance through the Medicare program, but they are among the most sought-after groups in the political struggle to pass or kill a health overhaul bill.

Democrats have stuffed their bills with sweeteners intended to woo the over-65 crowd. "The House health insurance reform bill will strengthen and improve Medicare and its benefits for older Americans, and help eliminate waste, fraud and inefficiency from Medicare," said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the House's No. 3 Democrat.

Among those sweeteners is a gradual closing of the "doughnut hole," the quirk in the Medicare drug benefit that requires patients to continue to pay premiums even while paying the full cost of their medicines. The bills would also eliminate copayments on preventive care. And the Senate Finance bill would pay for annual "wellness" checkups for every Medicare patient. Currently, the program only pays for a single physical when a senior first enrolls in the program.

Republicans, however, have been hammering for months the fact that much of the bill would be financed by cutting future Medicare spending.

"It will slash Medicare for seniors by about a half a trillion dollars over the next 10 years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said last week on the Senate floor. "These are major cuts with serious consequences."

Targeting The Senior Vote

It's no secret why both sides are so actively aiming their messages at seniors, says Robert Blendon, a public opinion and health expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. "Seniors are incredibly important politically," he says.

In fact, in off-year elections, like the one coming up next year, says Blendon, seniors "tend to turn out at much higher proportions than other age groups, and when it comes to voting, it turns out that health care is incredibly important to their vote, much more so than younger voters."

So far, says Blendon, seniors are more negative toward the health overhaul effort than most other age groups. He says that's in part because of Republican efforts to paint the Medicare cuts as potentially damaging to benefits, even though Democrats say the reductions will only target waste and inefficient spending.

"I think what has been going on is that seniors have read about large-scale cuts, and that's the way you've seen it in the newspapers or on talk radio shows. And they perceive that their care could deteriorate as a result of this," he says.

Selling The Bill

But Blendon also says Democrats simply haven't done a very good job letting seniors know that there are benefits aimed at them in the bills: "They're not at all seeing the potential benefits that the Congress has tried to provide in this legislation for them."

That helps explain why in recent weeks Democrats have held a series of events to publicize the new benefits — and even improved some of them. For example, the drug benefit doughnut hole will now be closed faster — over 10 years, rather than the original 15.

"The first bill was good. This is much better," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the change.

But whether it will be good enough to change seniors' so-far negative view of the bills remains an open question.

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