THE VILLAGES, Fla.--Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan wrapped up his first solo tour as Mitt Romney's running mate at the famous retirement community here Saturday, taking his message of Medicare reform to seniors in a crucial swing state.
Standing between two signs that read "Protect and Strengthen Medicare," Ryan made the most personal case for overhauling Medicare yet during his time on the campaign trail. With his mother, 78-year-old Betty Ryan Douglas, standing near him on the stage, Ryan discussed how the Medicare program has played a role in his own family's life.
"Like a lot of Americans, when I think of Medicare, it's not just a program. It's not just a bunch of numbers. It's what my mom relies on. It's what my grandma had," Ryan said. He told of how his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and moved into his mother's home when he was in high school. "Medicare was there for our family, for my grandma, when we needed it then. And Medicare is there for my mom while she needs it now, and we have to keep that guarantee."
Hundreds of seniors from the neighborhood came out in support of Ryan, while a few protestors stood on the outskirts holding signs against against Ryan's Medicare plan. A small plane flew over the rally carrying a banner reading, "Paul Ryan: Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!"
The future of the federal program has become a focal point of the presidential campaign since Romney chose Ryan as his running mate last weekend. As House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan proposed a plan to overhaul the Medicare program for those currently under the age of 55 that would offer what Republicans call "premium support," a system in which the federal government provides subsidies to seniors to purchase health care from private insurers. The new structure, Republicans say, would reduce the rapidly ballooning cost of the popular program. Democrats counter that the plan, which passed in the Republican-led House but failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate, would increase health care costs for seniors. With the Ryan pick, Democrats see an opportunity to use the plan against him to win the state heavy with seniors.
During his battleground state tour this week, Ryan has addressed Medicare a handful of times, but never at such lengths at a public event. Ryan, whose premium support plan would be optional and does not apply to current retirees, argued that the changes made to the payment structure of Medicare under President Barack Obama's 2010 health care law would restrict choices for seniors currently in the system. In the health care law, Obama planned to use the savings from restructuring part of Medicare to pay for the new law.
"Medicare should not be used as a piggy bank for Obamacare," Ryan said. "Medicare should be the promise that it made to our current seniors, period. End of story."
Without referring to it by name, Ryan pointed to the Independent Patient Advisory Board, a 15-member federal agency established under Obama's health care law to rein in health care costs, leading conservatives to argue that it would encourage rationing. Just as with Medicare, Ryan made his opposition to the proposal a personal case.
"We will make sure this board of bureaucrats will not mess with my mom's health care or your mom's health care," he said.
A spokesman from the Obama's campaign responded Saturday, saying that "a detailed debate" over Medicare reform would be "suicidal" for the Republican ticket.
"Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan know a detailed debate about their Medicare voucher plan is politically 'suicidal' so they're not telling the truth about its impact on current seniors. Congressman Ryan didn't tell seniors in Florida today that if he had his way, seniors would face higher Medicare premiums and prescription drug costs, and would be forced to pay out of pocket for preventive care," said campaign spokesman Danny Kanner in a statement. "He didn't say that they'd turn Medicare into a voucher system, ending the Medicare guarantee and raising costs by $6,400 a year for seniors. And he certainly didn't say that they'd do it all to pay for tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. But those are the facts, and the 'substantive' debate he claims they want requires Romney and Ryan to be honest about them."
The decision to send Ryan to a retirement community in Florida to defend his plan suggests that Medicare will likely remain a major part of the campaign debate, one that both Republicans and Democrats appear confident they can win.
This article has been updated to include a response from President Obama's presidential campaign spokesman.