The idea of privatizing Medicare is not winning popularity contests with voters. A Pew Research Center poll released Tuesday found that the public is aware of the proposal by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan to transform Medicare from social insurance into a voucher plan. And among Americans who have heard of the Ryan plan, 49 percent opposed it; only 34 percent were in favor. Pew found particularly high disapproval rates among older Americans, and independent voters weren’t keen on it either: 49 percent oppose and 34 percent support it. Thursday The New York Times reported that the GOP plan “is widely disliked,” and also that it has become the third most crucial issue to likely voters in the key swing states of Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, ranking behind the economy and healthcare.
This is another in CJR’s ongoing series of CJR Town Halls—conversations with citizens about the issues they are following in the press, and it will be the first of several Town Halls focused on Medicare. Part of the idea is to encourage journalists to do similar pieces, talking to ordinary people about dollars and cents issues and their needs and perceptions. Last week I was in Missouri, a swing state leaning red. My unscientific sample in St. Louis—made up of white women, some of whom just turned 65—pretty much lined up with what the scientific polls are showing.
Marie Cunningham and Janie Mueller
Cunningham, 65, and Mueller, 60, were on their lunch break, sitting outside the Bank of America Tower in downtown St. Louis, where they manage accounts for a property/casualty insurance broker. Cunningham, who recently signed up for Medicare, hadn’t heard much about Paul Ryan’s plan—“Are they trying to do away with it?” she wanted to know—and then let Mueller do the talking.
And Mueller had a lot to say. She had read about Ryan’s ideas in the newspapers, and watched coverage of it on CNN and MSNBC, and has an idea of how Medicare could change: “He wants to do away with what we know Medicare to be,” she said. “I’m not in favor of it at all. I’m extremely concerned.” Her main worry: preexisting conditions. She believes that under Ryan’s plan, older people who have medical conditions may not get insurance. It is an issue worth worrying about, since no one knows what final legislation might look like, though pre-existing conditions would seem to be something such legislation would address.
“Realistically when people into their 60s, their bodies start to fail,” she said. “Where are they going to get insurance? If Obamacare falls apart, we don’t have the force to make insurance companies take them.” Mueller is a Democrat and will vote for Obama, but she made clear that she views the issues independently, and also believes that “focusing on tort reform would be beneficial” in solving the healthcare cost dilemma. Tort reform is a solution pushed by the GOP.
Flecke, 55, was on her lunch break too, smoking outside the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis where she is the assistant manager for the Federal Reserve credit union. She told me she knew firsthand how the Great Recession has affected working families. “I saw many families suffering. They were living off courtesy pay,” she said, referring to a form of check overdraft protection that some banks and credit unions offer, which can be costly, but which allows consumers to pay their bills. “I saw more people living off that than I care to mention,” Flecke said. “A lot of our middle class is now lower class. What they had has been taken away from them.”
I asked Flecke how she gets her news. “The media doesn’t always tell you what’s true, “ she said. “What TV stations you watch are what you believe. You have to open your eyes or you’ll never have a clue.” She said she sometimes voted as an independent, and I asked her what she knew about Paul Ryan’s plan. “I would say it’s not a good one,” she said, and proceeded to accurately described what the plan would do.
Medicare had meant a great deal to her mother, who died at age 86: “I know Medicare helped my mom pay her medical expenses when she was alive. She was very ill. Without Medicare, we probably would have lost her years before.” Flecke said she planned to vote for Obama, although her boyfriend—she is divorced and has two adult children—“prays every day I’ll vote for the better of two evils, and that is Romney. People have told me I’m choosing the wrong candidate. The Christians here believe Obama is the anti-Christ. But I believe he has had his hands tied, and his overall goal is to help all Americans, not just the rich or the poor.”