By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press
COCONUT CREEK, Fla. (AP) - Campaigning in South Florida, Vice President Joe Biden lashed out against House Republicans' proposed changes to Medicare, telling a roomful of retirees that the plan would jeopardize the future health care for millions of older Americans.
Biden said the Medicare plan contained in a House GOP budget would effectively dismantle Medicare as it is currently structured. Senior citizen-rich Florida, a key battleground state in the presidential race, has about 3.3 million Medicare recipients.
"We believe in strengthening Medicare, and they don't," Biden said. "We can make Medicare solvent again. We don't have to gut it to make it last."
Medicare covers health care for 49 million seniors and disabled people, providing essential protection against unpredictable medical costs in retirement. But the program is widely acknowledged to be in serious trouble. Its giant trust fund for inpatient care is projected to become insolvent in 2024, meaning that payroll taxes collected will not be enough to cover the full cost of expected benefits.
Republicans would convert Medicare into a system dominated by private health insurance plans closely regulated by the government. Future retirees would get a fixed payment to buy either private coverage or sign up for a new government plan modeled on traditional Medicare. The plan counts on competition among the plans to help keep costs in check, but the annual government payment would also be limited by tying it to economic growth.
That's the basic approach embodied in the new budget released this week by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, and seconded by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Theoretically, such a system could help rein in Medicare cost increases, economists say. The question is whether it would be politically acceptable to seniors and future generations, with polls indicating that the public is resistant to major changes. Recognizing the sensitivity, Ryan's plan would exempt anyone now 55 or older.
Biden spoke at a condominium community in Broward County, one of Florida's most reliably Democratic counties. The vice president has recently ramped up his political appearances in key states as the November presidential election draws near, including an appearance last week in Toledo, Ohio.
Biden sought to attach the House budget plan authored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to the Republican presidential candidates: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
Biden said if Republicans in Congress gain a president with one of "their amen corner of Romney, Santorum, and Gingrich," ''I promise you, you will see the end of Medicare as we know it."
In an opinion piece published in Friday's South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said his parents relied on Medicare and insists the GOP has no plans to scrap it.
"So far, the president has yet to put forth a serious plan to save Medicare for future generations. Unless we reform it, Medicare is headed for dramatic cuts, diminished care and ultimately will go broke. This is leadership failure at its worst," Rubio wrote.
Rubio, who is seen as a potential candidate for vice president, said Medicare should remain in place as it is for current beneficiaries and those age 55 or older who are nearing retirement. The GOP, he added, wants a true rescue plan, rather than a postponement of insolvency, that does not raise taxes.
Biden also said Democrats would do more to strengthen Social Security, which he described along with Medicare as the federal cornerstones to independent living for millions of elderly and ways for many to avoid impoverished golden years.
"Every American, after a lifetime of hard work, should be able to look forward to the security and dignity that Social Security and Medicare provide," he said. "It's not just about health. It's about dignity."
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