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Wyden-Ryan Medicare Plan Shakes Up Politics More Than Policy

There's not much that's new in the Medicare proposal just unveiled by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)

So why is it getting so much attention? One word. No, not plastics. Politics!

Sure, the proposal is quite a bit different from the controversial plan authored by Ryan and passed by the House in April that would essentially turn Medicare into a voucher program. The latest one, like Ryan's original, would include a cap on total Medicare spending and feature more private competition than under the current program, though.

But Wyden, at a briefing at held by the Bipartisan Policy Center, said he was careful in negotiating with Ryan to ensure that the current proposal, which would not be introduced in legislative form until after the 2012 election, preserves the things progressive Democrats value most in Medicare.

"The first of course, was to make sure traditional Medicare, with its marketplace clout, popularity among seniors, low administrative costs, was preserved for all time," he said. At the same time, he said, the compromise with Ryan represents a "more reasonable approach" to limiting growth, and making sure that if costs did grow they wouldn't "automatically hammer the seniors."

Wyden's fellow Democrats aren't sure he's doing them such a big favor. They think he's more likely letting Ryan and his fellow Republicans off the hook just as Dems are using Medicare as a club on the campaign trail.

"We are concerned that Wyden-Ryan, like Congressman Ryan's earlier proposal, would undermine, rather than strengthen, Medicare," said a statement from White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer. "The Wyden-Ryan scheme could, over time, cause the traditional Medicare program to 'wither on the vine' because it would raise premiums, forcing many seniors to leave traditional Medicare and joint private plans."

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the longtime chairman and now ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means health subcommittee said the measure still does "end Medicare as we know it, plain and simple." Said Stark, "if these two get their way, senior citizens' health coverage will depend on what big insurance offers and what seniors — most of them on modest, fixed incomes — can afford."

Ethan Rome, head of the advocacy group Health Care for America Now, said the proposal is "just another version of the Ryan Republican plan to do away with Medicare and bankrupt seniors, but this time it's got one Democrat on board."

Just because Wyden's on board "doesn't make it bipartisan," Rome said, and the latest plan would ultimately replace "guaranteed benefits with vouchers."

Wyden, for his part, said he doesn't think Republicans will be able to use the new proposal to walk away from their support for Ryan's earlier, more radical rewrite of Medicare. "Nobody ducks their past votes and their previous statements. That's just a given," he said.

But it appears some Republicans are already trying.

Speaking on Iowa Public Television, GOP presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich called it "a very important breakthrough" and "a bipartisan effort to really come to grips with one of the major entitlement challenges we face."

And, according to a tweet from Talking Points Memo's Brian Beutler, House Speaker John Boehner called the plan "a bipartisan idea that's worthy of our consideration" and "a step in the right direction."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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