One Bright Spot for Obama: Medicare

Margot Sanger-Katz
National Journal

In a tough debate for the president, Medicare may have been the high point.

Obama made a strong case that the Medicare reform proposal offered by Mitt Romney could shift costs to seniors and potentially undermine the traditional government insurance program, even if the plan includes it as an option.

Romney never fought back on Obama’s central assertion, that his plan amounted to a “voucher,” even after moderator Jim Lehrer asked him if he supported “a voucher system.”  As he has on the stump, Romney emphasized how his plan would not affect current seniors and how Obama’s health reform law cut the Medicare budget. But he did not clearly answer the president’s most damning charge, that the plan he proposed for future generations could end up costing them.

“The problem is that because the voucher wouldn't necessarily keep up with health care inflation, it was estimated that this would cost the average senior about $6,000 a year.” Obama said. “Every health care economist that looks at it says, over time, what’ll happen is the traditional Medicare system will collapse,” he said later.

Obama’s attack was misleading, because the $6,000 number is based on an analysis of a 2011 plan that differs significantly from Romney’s current proposal. His claim that “every health care economist” endorses his analysis is also a stretch, though even many conservative health economists have their doubts about how a Romney plan would work.

But it was also effective. The public, by large margins, supports Medicare just the way it is. And Obama was specific about the ways that the plan could, theoretically, raise costs for beneficiaries. Romney explained that his plan included “no additional $6,000,” and emphasized how it would give seniors a greater choice of plans. But he probably needed to go further to sell a reluctant public on a structural change to the program, explaining why his plan wouldn’t do the scary things Obama said it would.