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Will Florida Seniors Accept Ryan's Medicare Vision?

Aug 14, 2012
Originally published on August 16, 2012 1:07 pm

GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's choice of Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate may help energize support from conservative voters who like his tough approach to overhauling the federal budget.

But there's a risk that Ryan may turn off an important voting bloc: senior citizens.

Ryan has proposed transforming Medicare into a voucher-like program with fixed payments. That's an important issue for senior citizens. And in Florida, seniors will help determine who wins the state in November. Voters 65 and up make up about 18 percent of the state's population, but they are more than a quarter of the state's registered voters.

Around the state, you can find many in retirement communities like Wynmoor Village, a large over-55 community west of Fort Lauderdale with some 9,000 residents.

This part of Florida — Broward County — is a Democratic stronghold, with much of that strength coming from senior citizens in retirement communities.

Medicare Debate Gets Personal

Mikkie Belvedere runs a long-established Democratic club. She says she was already familiar with Ryan when Romney named him as his pick for vice president.

"Well, I felt, here we go. Here's a man who is looking to totally mess up the budget for senior citizens," Belvedere says

At the heart of Belvedere's concerns is how Ryan would change Medicare. He's proposed controlling the program's growth through an option that would cap payments to senior citizens and allow them to buy their health insurance on the private market.

Current senior citizens would be unaffected. Ryan's plan would only apply to people who now are under age 55. Marilyn Gerber, another Wynmoor retiree, says for her that makes little difference. She's still opposed to any big changes to the program.

"He's not going to do away with Medicare for seniors, but he will for Medicare for my kids and my grandkids," Gerber says.

But Gerber and Belvedere don't speak for all the seniors in Florida — or even in Wynmoor.

Changing Demographics

In another Wynmoor building, Carolyn Stricklen convenes a meeting of the community's Republican club. This club's been around for just four years. It was started by Sid Feldman, shortly after he retired to Florida after a long political career in Philadelphia.

"The first meeting that I held, I was approached by two older ladies. And they kissed me on either cheek and said, 'Thank you for letting me out of the closet,' " Feldman recalls.

At Wynmoor and other retirement communities throughout Florida, things are changing. Younger retirees, including many from traditionally Republican states, are changing the demographics and political outlook of Florida's senior citizens.

Seniors are an important part of Florida's large and active Tea Party movement. And there are many, like Andrea Bellito, who are thrilled with Romney's choice of Ryan.

Bellito even has a prediction: "The Romney-Ryan team is going to be called the dynamic duo, the new look of America, because that's what we need," Bellito says.

'Why Are You Scaring Me?'

Bellito and other Romney supporters at Wynmoor embrace Ryan's proposal to reshape Medicare — saying big changes are needed if the nation is going to rein in debt and avoid a fiscal meltdown.

But Feldman says for Romney and Ryan, overcoming Democratic scare tactics will be a major challenge.

"Tell me the truth," Feldman says. "Don't tell me stories. What are you going to do? I'm 79 years old. I can keep my Medicare the way it is. So why are you scaring me?"

University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett says the potency of Medicare as an election issue is an old story in Florida. Although President Obama carried the state in 2008, Jewett says his opponent, Sen. John McCain, won the senior vote.

"One of the reasons was that they worried about cuts in Medicare because of the Obama reform plan that he was proposing. And, you know, this time around the shoe is potentially on the other foot," Jewett says.

While Obama and other Democrats attack their opponents for Ryan's Medicare plan, Romney and Ryan are firing back. They're accusing Obama of cutting Medicare himself to help pay for his health care plan.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Romney's choice of running mate may help energize conservative voters, but there's a risk that congressman Paul Ryan may turn off an important voting bloc: senior citizens. Ryan has proposed transforming Medicare into a voucher-like program with fixed payments. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Florida, what seniors think of that plan may help determine who wins that battleground state in November.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: There are a lot of senior citizens in Florida, and they nearly all vote. Voters 65 and up make up about 18 percent of the state's population, but they are over a quarter of registered voters. Around the state, you can find many in retirement communities like this one.

MIKKIE BELVEDERE: I'm Mikkie. It's nice to see you.

ALLEN: Wynmoor Village is a large over-55 community west of Fort Lauderdale, with some 9,000 residents. Mikkie Belvedere runs the long-established Democratic Club here. This part of Florida, Broward County, is a Democratic stronghold, and senior citizens who live in retirement communities make up much of that strength. Belvedere says she was already familiar with Ryan when Romney named him VP.

BELVEDERE: Well, I felt that here we go. Here's a man who is looking to totally mess up the budget for senior citizens.

ALLEN: At the heart of Belvedere's concerns is how Ryan would change Medicare. He's proposed controlling the program's growth through an option that would cap payments to senior citizens and allow them to buy their health insurance on the private market. Current senior citizens would be unaffected. Ryan's plan would only apply to people who are now under age 55. Marilyn Gerber, another Wynmoor retiree, says for her that makes little difference. She's still opposed to any big changes to the program.

MARILYN GERBER: He's not going to do away with Medicare for seniors, but he will with - for Medicare for my kids and my grandkids.

ALLEN: But Gerber and Belvedere don't speak for all of the seniors in Florida or even in Wynmoor - far from it.

CAROLYN STRICKLEN: So let's call the meeting of the board of directors to order.

ALLEN: In another building at Wynmoor, Carolyn Stricklen convenes a meeting of the community's Republican Club. This club has been around for just four years. It was started by Sid Feldman, shortly after he retired to Florida after a long political career in Philadelphia.

SID FELDMAN: Well, the first meeting that I held, I was approached by two older ladies. And they kissed me on either cheek and said, thank you for letting me out of the closet.

ALLEN: At Wynmoor and other retirement communities throughout Florida, things are changing. Younger retirees, including many from traditional Republican states, are changing the demographics and political outlook of Florida's senior citizens. Seniors are an important part of Florida's large and active Tea Party movement. And there are many, like Andrea Bellito, who are thrilled with Romney's choice of Paul Ryan. Bellito even has a prediction.

ANDREA BELLITO: That the Romney-Ryan team is going to be called the dynamic duo, the new look of America, because that's what we need.

ALLEN: Bellito and other Romney supporters at Wynmoor embrace Ryan's proposal to reshape Medicare, saying big changes are needed if the nation is going to rein in debt and avoid a fiscal meltdown. But Sid Feldman says for Romney and Ryan, overcoming Democratic scare tactics will be a major challenge.

FELDMAN: Tell me the truth. In Jewish, it states, don't tell me bubba meintzes. Don't tell me stories. What are you going to do? I'm 79 years old. I can keep my Medicare the way it is. So why are you scaring me?

ALLEN: University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett says the potency of Medicare as an election issue is an old story in Florida. Although President Obama carried the state in 2008, Jewett says John McCain won the senior vote.

AUBREY JEWETT: You know, one of the reasons was that they worried about cuts in Medicare because of the Obama reform plan that he was proposing. And, you know, this time around, the shoe is potentially on the other foot.

ALLEN: While President Obama and other Democrats attack their opponents for Ryan's Medicare plan, Romney and Ryan are firing back. They're accusing Mr. Obama of cutting Medicare himself to help pay for his health care plan. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.