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Will 2010 Medicare ads come back to haunt GOP?

Generic healthcare medicare baby boomers silhouettes CBS/iStockphoto

The proposed 2012 budget that Republican Rep. Paul Ryan put forward today seemingly plays right into Democrats' hands by proposing massive changes to Medicare -- Ryan acknowledged as much this week on Fox News Sunday.

The Republican party launched aggressive attacks against Democrats in the midterm elections for voting for President Obama's health care reforms, which also included significant changes to the program. With that in mind, it should be evident enough to Ryan and other Republicans that proposing changes to Medicare is politically risky -- and now Democrats are launching their own attacks.

Ryan's plan would dramatically transform the health care plan for seniors. Instead of providing those over 65 with government-run health care, seniors starting in 2022 would receive "premium support" (subsidies given directly to insurance providers) to get the health care of their choice from private insurers. The congressman contends his plan would save $389 billion in Medicare expenses over the next decade, compared with President Obama's budget. The plan would not effect those who are currently 55 and above.

Many Republicans have praised Ryan's efforts today, but much of the praise has been reserved for Ryan's leadership, rather than the substance of the proposal itself. Some of those Republicans may have 2010 in mind, when the GOP hammered the Democratic health care plan, which included $500 billion in Medicare cuts.

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"Seniors do not want senators fooling with Medicare," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Dec. 4, 2009, ahead of the congressional votes on the legislation. "Let me say that again: Seniors do not want senators fooling with Medicare. They want us to fix it, to strengthen it... not raid it like a giant piggy bank to create some entirely new government program."

To be sure, Mr. Obama's health care plan is expected to not only cut some funding for Medicare but also use tax dollars to create new programs, as McConnell suggested. Ryan's budget, by contrast, is largely focused on reducing government spending all together.

Ryan said of his Medicare plan on Fox News Sunday, "We are giving them a political weapon to go against us, but they will have to lie and demagogue to make that a political weapon."

Most Democrats would likely say the same about their health care overhaul. Most of the Medicare savings in the health care overhaul came from reducing annual increases in payments to health care providers. Another large portion of the savings is expected to come from increasing premiums for higher-income Medicare beneficiaries -- one of the very same proposals Ryan has in his budget.

Nevertheless, the Democratic health care plan provided potent fodder for the midterm elections. Republican Dan Coats, now the junior senator for Indiana, ran an ad against his 2010 opponent, Democratic Rep. Brad Ellsworth that blasted him for failing to "protect seniors."

"When he got to Washington, Congressman Ellsworth voted for the largest cuts in Medicare history - over $500 billion," a narrator in the 2010 ad said. "That's right, Ellsworth voted with Nancy Pelosi to force seniors into Barack Obama's government-run health care program, reducing the protection Medicare provides. That's wrong. Dan Coats will fight to strengthen Medicare and protect seniors."

Coats office has not responded to an inquiry from Hotsheet as to whether he supports Ryan's proposed budget.

Similarly, Republican Pat Toomey, now the junior senator for Pennsylvania, ran a 2010 ad railing against his opponent Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak for supporting the health care overhaul.

"Washington has gotten so extreme and Joe Sestak is a big part of it," says a man in the ad identified as Ed, a lifelong Democrat. "The health care law went too far, even forcing changes to my Medicare coverage."

Toomey released the ad in a press release that highlighted several news reports about the cuts to Medicare in the Democratic health reforms. Toomey's office has yet to respond to Hotsheet as to whether the senator supports Ryan's plan.

Now that the Republicans have their own plan to reform Medicare, it's the Democrats expressing outrage.

"This budget is more proof that Tea Party extremists have toppled the Republican House leadership and completely taken over," Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) said in a statement today about Ryan's plan. "The House Republican Tea Partiers started with cuts to Head Start, education and medical research, and now they want to privatize Medicare. If you are a child seeking an education or an older American seeking health care, the Tea Party budget is toxic to your future."

Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) said in a statement the Ryan plan is "one of the most callous and reckless proposals I've seen during 18 years in Congress" and it amounts to "destroying Medicare."

Democratic Sen. Max Baucus (Mont.), the Finance Committee chairman who played a central role in the health care reform debate, said in a statement that expert analysis shows the Ryan plan would "make deep cuts to the Medicare benefits seniors count on."

"It would end Medicare as we know it and funnel Medicare dollars directly into private insurance companies' pockets," he said.

To be sure, Ryan's plan would fundamentally change Medicare as it exists now and potentially leave a segment of the senior population unable to cover their health care costs.

But it should be noted that Democrats have also promoted the expansion of health care coverage based on "premium support." The state-based exchange system -- a key component of the Democrats' plan for expanding coverage -- provides a marketplace for consumers to purchase private health insurance. If they cannot afford it, consumers receive affordability tax credits -- essentially, "premium support." This plan, like Ryan's, was modeled off the health care system available to members of Congress. Special Report: Health Care and Medicare